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‘Bunk’ is a verb, 19th Century in origin, and it means ‘to leave.’ So you could quite correctly say “darling, I’ve had enough of this cocktail party, shall we bunk?” and it would be grammatically correct. Trouble is, it doesn’t sound like a verb on its own, and the action it describes has a greater range of motion than this one brutal word can encapsulate, so it doesn’t tend to get used in that way.
Then there are the other meanings of the word, all of them nouns, most of which are still in use:
A ‘bunk’ as in a berth, a place to sleep.
‘Bunk,’ short for ‘bunkum,’ meaning nonsense or tommyrot.
So there’s been a tendency to add extra words, extra sense, to give it a bit of heft, to root it in a definite situation, rather than leave it to illustrate some carefree escape. As a result, the word has become almost exclusively used to mean ‘leaving a situation illicitly’. For example, schoolboys who don’t want to go to lessons will happily ‘bunk off,’ meaning ‘play truant.’ Landlords live in mortal fear of their tenants ‘doing a bunk’ in the middle of the night.
What you’ll notice about ‘doing a bunk’ is that it is one of those very pleasing terms where the verb has been formally transformed into a noun that still describes the same action. It’s the difference between ‘to escape’ and ‘to perform an escape.’
Russell Brand speaks like this all the time, he doesn’t walk, he’ll say he’s ‘done a walk to the shops.’ He doesn’t write, he’ll have ‘done writing.’ It’s a very East London/Essex approach to language. The extra twist being that it’s equally common in that part of the country, when speaking about things in the past, to transform ‘did’ to ‘done,’ so Russell would say he “done a speech about a man, right, who done a bunk from one of them foul and reprehensible prisons,” before throwing in a Wildean flourish and simpering slightly, for the cameras.
Also, the Sex Pistols song ‘No One Is Innocent’ – the one written with the notorious train robber Ronnie Biggs – has the chorus “Ronnie Biggs was doing time, until he done a bunk, now he says he’s seen the light, and he sold his soul for punk.”
It’s not a great example of their work, but does at least prove the cultural currency of the phrase.
So, next time you want to slope off home from work early, or notice that your brother has abandoned some family commitment before the washing up has been done, you know what to call it, right?
What shall we do next? Ideas please:
See more posts by Fraser McAlpine
Fraser has been writing and broadcasting about music and popular culture for over 15 years, first at the Top of the Pops website, and most recently for the NME, Guardian and MSN. He also wrote BBC Radio 1's Chart Blog and reviews albums for BBC Radio 2.
He is Anglophenia's current resident Brit, blogging about British slang and running around the Mall taking snaps of the crowd at the Royal Wedding, as well as reigniting a childhood passion for classic Doctor Who and cramming as much music in as he can manage.
Fraser invites you to join him on Twitter: @csi_popmusic