background image 182

A reader has a question about the word buster:

Is the word “buster” ebonics or not? Where does this word come from? And how is it formed?

The reader does not specify which of the several uses of buster prompted the question, but in any case, the word was in the language well before any significant development of the English dialect known as ebonics.

Note: For readers unfamiliar with the term ebonics, the word was coined in 1973 and defined in 1975 by its proponents as “the linguistic and paralinguistic features which on a concentric continuum represent the communicative competence of the West African, Caribbean, and United States slave descendants of African origin.” The term quickly proved to be unwieldy and politically charged. A more neutral name for the distinctive English dialect associated with US black culture is African American Vernacular English (AAVE). The first nineteen or so Africans to reach the English colonies arrived in Jamestown, Virginia in 1619, brought by Dutch traders who had seized them from a captured Spanish slave ship—just five years after the first documented use of buster in English.

In the earliest citation in the OED (1614), buster is used to mean “a person who or thing which ‘busts’ a specified thing, or causes it to break or burst”:

Now death, I pray thee what is it, but a buster of bonds; a destruction of toyle? (i.e., Death is seen as a “buster” of figurative chains, freeing people from bondage and toil.)

This meaning of the word is evident in various terms. For example, a bronco-buster is a cowboy who prepares horses to be ridden by breaking their will to resist.

Note: The Spanish adjective bronco means rough or rude. It was adopted into English as a noun to refer to an untamed or half-tamed horse.

A gangbuster (1930) is an officer of a law-enforcement agency who is known for successfully, and often aggressively, fighting organized crime, breaking up gangs, and apprehending gangsters. Eliot Ness is a well-known gangbuster.

By extension, gangbuster/s can mean something that is outstandingly successful; a winner, a hit. The word is used as both noun and adjective:

Better than last season, but not gangbusters 

I think this is going to be a real gangbuster season.

Another quarter, another three months where gangbuster growth remains AWOL.
My radio show is going gangbuster. I just picked up my third top-ten radio station in Chicago.

The music business is going gangbuster.

We’re celebrating all month long with a gangbuster sale.

Another meaning of buster is “a person who or thing which is impressive or remarkable, especially in being more than typically large, loud, etc.” Presumably, the person or thing has “busted” a norm of some kind. The OED gives the example “What a buster of a lunch it turned out to be.”

Buster is used as a form of address, sometimes with affection and sometimes with hostility. For example, a parent or babysitter might say to a child, “Time for bed, Buster.” On the other hand, someone being annoyed by a stranger might say, “Don’t come any closer, Buster, or I’ll call a cop.”

The popularity of Buster as a nickname for little boys may owe something to the fame of the actor Buster Keaton (1895-1966). The son of vaudeville performers, Keaton was famous as a child actor long before his adult successes. According to legend, he acquired his nickname when he fell down a flight of stairs and Harry Houdini, who was present, quipped, “That was a real buster!” Keaton’s father immediately created “Buster Keaton” as his son’s stage name.

The comic book character Buster Brown, created by cartoonist Richard F. Outcault in 1902, was another cultural icon that popularized the name Buster. When a shoe manufacturer adopted the character as its logo in 1904, the name received a boost from national advertising. I suspect that plenty of Americans of a certain age can still sing the Buster Brown jingle.

Buster is popular as a name for pets. Here are some reasons pet owners chose the name:

We named him Buster because he had a busted nose. 

My neighbor named him Buster, cause he was a Buster to try and catch.

You see my friends from the special ed place that my aunt works at named him Buster because he got into a lot of trouble and got caught. 

I have named him Buster because he is somewhat bossy and pushy with my sister’s steer. 

I named him Buster because he was tossed out of the car.

Stop making those embarrassing mistakes! Subscribe to Daily Writing Tips today!

You will improve your English in only 5 minutes per day, guaranteed!

Each newsletter contains a writing tip, word of the day, and exercise!

You'll also get three bonus ebooks completely free!

5 thoughts on “Buster”

  1. The questioner was probably thinking of Busta Rhymes, the stage name of Trevor Tahiem Smith, Jr., the hip hop recording artist.

  2. This strikes me as a strange question. Is the reader unfamiliar with the word “bust”, as in break or destroy or make inoperable? If not, then the word buster for one who busts should be pretty easy to inference (nyuk nyuk). Why would he think it was related to ebonics? And what does he even mean in asking, “how is it formed?”

  3. For answers to questions regarding rapidly evolving modern slang, one has to suck it up and visit the Urban Dictionary. OED and MW aren’t going to be of much use here. The top accepted definition is “someone who can’t hang or is just acting like a little punk bitch.” OK, got it. That person has “busted” the vibe, disrupted the flow, perhaps is simply being an obstructionist for various reasons. It would indeed be difficult to look and sound cool if one stated to one’s homies, “Dude, you are being an obstructionist, dog, now chill, yo.” (Actually, that does sound kind of cool but then again, I’m almost 50 so what do I know?)

    Urban Dictionary also has its own unflattering definition for ebonics itself.

    Anyone needing a crash course in the language of the streets while writing dialogue should probably watch every episode of The Wire over the course of a couple days. With the captions on.

  4. According to the US National Park Service, it was the English war ship White Lion sailing with Dutch letters of marque, that first brought slaves to Virginia in 1619. The slaves had been captured from a Portuguese slave ship. Essentially, the White Lion was a pirate ship.

    The slaves were not sold as slaves but traded as indentured servants in return for supplies. After seven years they should have been free. It is not clear to what extent this was honored. But some of this first group did gain their freedom. Likely they were African slaves sold to the Portuguese and later ‘liberated’ by English pirates.

  5. My dad would occasionally call me “Buster” (c. 1950s). This appellation was most often used in a jovial tone, but now and then the tone would insinuate warning or disapproval. In any case, I sometimes use that same title when speaking to my cat, and with the same variations in meaning. I believe that the cat, whose vocalizations are distinct, has his own equivalent of the word.

Leave a Comment