Bust, Burst, and Arrest

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Yes, I know that just about everyone uses the word “bust” as a noun to mean “arrest” and as a verb to mean “arrested.”

Phoenix police discuss soured drug bust that killed Chandler officer

…a Merrill Lynch banker… was busted along with seven others yesterday for participating in an illegal game…

I know too that it’s common to use the word “bust” to mean “burst” or “break.”

Hurricanes roaring across the Gulf of Mexico create strong enough underwater waves to dig up and potentially bust open oil pipelines

Innovative Sound Device Could Bust Cancer Cells …

Holiday price stings could bust the family budget.

Commonly used or not, these uses always register as nonstandard with me. Colloquial, yes. Appropriate in some idioms, yes. Acceptable in a formal context, no.

The verb burst means “to break suddenly when in a state of tension.” Balloons burst. Bubbles burst. Burst means “to break the outer covering and discharge the matter.” Boils burst. Burst means to open out, to disperse. Flowers burst into bloom. Seed pods burst. We get wet from a sudden cloud burst. And, of course, undersea oil pipes burst. Undersea wells break or break down.

Used informally, the word bust is acceptable in certain idioms:

to bust a bronco (break a horse)
to go bust (to lose one’s money at gambling)
boom or bust (economic prosperity or failure)
drug bust (drug arrest, raid)
to bust (to arrest, or to be discovered in an illegal or disobedient act)

This deliberately playful headline about the discovery of a publicity hoax plays on two colloquial meanings of “bust” as a verb, “burst” and “found out as culpable”:

Balloon Boy Busted

In standard usage, bust is a noun with such meanings as

A piece of sculpture representing the head, shoulders, and breast of a person.

The upper front part of the human body; the bosom (esp. of a woman).

The measurement around a woman’s body at the level of her bust, usually measured in inches

My inability to accept “bust” as an unexceptionable synonym for “break” or “arrest” may be totally irrational. Nevertheless, whenever I hear it from the mouth of a news announcer, or see it used in the context of a formal news story, it strikes me as nonstandard and unnecessarily jarring.

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5 thoughts on “Bust, Burst, and Arrest”

  1. Just wanted you to know i still remember the day I heard “bust” used for “burst” the very first time — back in the 1970s! — and the traffic reporter on an Indianapolis country western music station who used it to describe frozen and burst water pipes. It still gives me a chill!

  2. As a former member of the counterculture in the 1960s I frequently heard and used the word “bust” to refer to police activities. I find it perfectly acceptable.

    If you find that usage offensive, be patient — our language, especially our individual lexica, is in a constant state of flux, and “bust” to mean arrest may well be seen as a quaint relic of our turbulent past some day.

  3. I like to reserve “bust” to describe the bosom of the fine, upstanding kind.

    I am with you, Maeve.

  4. So glad to have tead your bust/butst commentary. I woke up today (2/1/19) to read an Associated Press news story that said that the warmth following the Polar Vortex was sure to bring “busted water mains”! Surely that is still non-standard isn’t it? So what is the AP thinking? Thanks for being the one voice out there for grammarians!
    Fran Britton

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