Thursday, August 12, 2010


You may remember the late legend Ray Charles singing about his financial troubles in a song called “Busted”:
            “The fields are all bare and the cotton won't grow,
            Me and my family got to pack up and go,
            But I'll make a living, just where I don't know, cause I'm busted.”
The lyrics—by Harland Howard (who also wrote such country hits as “I Fall to Pieces” and “Heartaches by the Number” and who described country music as “three chords and the truth”)—use “busted” to mean “bankrupt or broke,” a slang usage since 1837. 

Steven Greenhouse used “busted” in quite a different way, when he wrote in a recent issue of The New York Times: “…shoppers at a Wal-Mart store in Valley Stream, N.Y., busted through the doors…”  Here “busted” is used as a synonym for “burst”—meaning “entered by causing something suddenly to give way to impact or pressure.”  This usage of “busted” (and its present tense cousin “bust”), according to the Oxford English Dictionary, is a “dialectical and vulgar pronunciation of burst, especially in the U. S.” It did seem a peculiar usage, to say the least, in the pages of The Times, but things are getting slipshod everywhere these days.

Americans have been using the vulgar pronunciation “busted” since 1806 to mean a variety of things: broken or made inoperable (“BP’s oil rig was busted”), arrested (“Lindsay Lohan was busted for violating probation”), to bring to an end (“Liz busted up Debbie’s marriage”), tamed (“the cowboy busted ten broncos in one day”), worked hard (“the U. S. soccer team busted their butts to no avail”), demoted (“General McChrystal was not busted to three stars”), to lose at cards by exceeding a limit (“that ten of diamonds busted me at the blackjack table”), hit (“Sean Penn busted the photographer over the head”), and raided (“Belgian police busted the bishops’ conclave”).   Such a useful to word to be so vulgar!

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou is second to no one in being vulgar, but as to being useful, the jury is still out—and you can reach a verdict based on this evidence:

            A lover of sculpture had such a great lust
            For torsos of Caesar he felt that he must
            Exhibit his passion
            In suitable fashion--
            So he bussed out to Rome, where he bussed an old bust.

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