The Grammarphobia Blog

Street theater

Q: In the course of one of many Scrabble games with a dear friend, I “created” a word that was not in the dictionary but, by all logic, should have been. I used the word “busk” as the verb for what a “busker” does. Is this correct or permissible?

A: We generally try to stay out of disputes about Scrabble, which is a world unto itself, but we’ll make an exception for this question since it’s pretty clear-cut.

We can unreservedly stand up for “busk,” a verb that’s been around (with various meanings) since the 1300s, and can be found in standard dictionaries as well as in the Oxford English Dictionary.

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.) defines the verb as to “play music or perform entertainment in a public place, usually while soliciting money.” The noun form (“busker”) is given without comment at the end of the entry for the verb.

Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.), on the other hand, has separate entries for both the verb and the noun. The noun is defined as “a person who entertains in a public place for donations,” and M-W says it was derived from the verb.

The OED says the use of the verb in this sense (“to play music or entertain in the streets, etc.”) first showed up in the early 19th century. The first citation is from The Life of an Actor, an 1825 book by Pierce Egan:

“I agreed with my clown, Tom Jefferies, who could sing a good low comedy song, Mr. Brown, a musician, and myself, to busk our way up to London.”

However, a much earlier OED citation includes a verbal phrase with the same meaning. Sir John Hawkins writes in A General History of Music (1776) of musicians “going a-busking.”

The OED agrees with Merriam-Webster’s that the verb “busk” gave us the noun “busker,” defined as “an itinerant entertainer or musician.”

Oxford’s earliest citation for this use of the noun in print is from an 1857 issue of The National Magazine. An article headlined “The Busker” went on to offer an etymology of the word:

“His avocation is strictly peripatetic; and hence he takes his title from the short boot, or ‘buskin,’ which has been a common article of stage-apparel … ever since the earliest days of the drama.”

While it’s true that a “buskin” is a short, laced boot, that’s probably not the source of “busker.”

The verb “busk” meant “to prepare oneself, get ready” (a sense now considered obsolete) when it first showed up in English in the 14th century, according to the OED.

The sense we’re talking about, however, is derived from a nautical meaning of “busk” that apparently came into English by way of an obsolete French verb, busquer (to shift, filch, prowl, catch by hook or crook).

The OED says the French verb in turn came from either Italian (buscare, to filch, prowl, shift for), or Spanish (buscar, to seek).

When it entered English in the mid-17th century, seafarers used the verb “busk” in the sense of “to beat or cruise about; to beat to windward, tack.” For example, “to busk it out” meant “to weather a storm by tacking about.”

But to “busk” also meant “to cruise as a pirate,” which the OED says was “perhaps the original sense: compare Italian buscare, French busquer.”

The verb took on another meaning in the 18th century: “to go about seeking for, to seek after.”

Here are two examples, from different volumes of Roger North’s Lives of the Norths, written sometime before 1734:

“My Lord Rochester … was inclined … to busk for some other way to raise the supply.”

“Running up and down and through the city … perpetually busking after one thing or other.”

It was nearly another century before “busk” was used in the sense of street performing. And while the OED presents this as a development from those earlier meanings, it leaves open the possibility that “perhaps this is a distinct word.”

Call us romantics, but we like to think that the 19th-century sense of “busk” descended from piracy, and that itinerant musicians cruise the streets for booty of a different kind.

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