Q: My granddaughter is in the sixth grade and her principal says the plural of “bus” (the motor vehicle ) can be spelled “buses” or “busses.” She’s confused, isn’t she? In my day “buss” meant to kiss someone. Thanks for your input.
A: Your granddaughter’s principal is right.
The plural for the large motor vehicle that carries passengers, usually along a fixed route, can be either “buses” or “busses,” according to both Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) and The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.).
Merriam-Webster’s indicates, however, that the plural “buses” is more common. And many style and usage guides prefer the plural with one “s” in the middle.
As for that singular noun with a double “s,” the two dictionaries agree that a “buss” is just a kiss – in your granddaughter’s day as well as in yours.
In your great-great-grandfather’s day, though, the singular for a passenger vehicle was sometimes spelled “buss” (with a double “s”). In fact, the first two published references for the word in the Oxford English Dictionary (from 1832 and 1837) spell it that way.
The word for the vehicle, as you probably know, is a shortened form of “omnibus,” which first appeared in English in 1829. We borrowed the word from French, where it was first used in 1825 for the vehicles that carried passengers between Nantes and a nearby beach.
Why “omnibus”? John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins says it comes from the phrase voiture omnibus, literarily carriage for all (voiture is “carriage” in French while omnibus means “for all” in Latin).
But a curious account in the OED suggests that the ultimate source for “omnibus” may be a French tradesman whose last name was Omnès. The tradesman apparently coined the motto Omnès omnibus for his nameplate and attached it to his vehicle. Voilà!
The word for the kiss, which was originally spelled “busse” when it showed up in English in the 1500s, may ultimately come from basium, the Latin word for a kiss. (In Spanish, a kiss is a beso; in French, it’s a baiser; and in Italian, a bacio.)
All this word history may be interesting, but in modern English the vehicle is a “bus” and the kiss is a “buss,” while the plural of both can be spelled “busses” (though “buses” is more common for the vehicles).