Q: I was listening to NPR the other day when a football scout said he’d waited outside a prospect’s home and then “bum-rushed” him. When I grew up, giving a “bum’s rush” to someone meant hustling him out the door, figuratively or literally. Lately I’ve been hearing “bum-rush” used as a verb meaning to ambush. What the heck? Where’s the context? How did this happen?
A: This use of “bum-rush” as a verbal phrase is fairly recent, and it’s undoubtedly a variation on the earlier noun phrase “the bum’s rush.”
The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.) says to “bum-rush” is “to charge at or into (a person or place): groupies who bum-rushed the musician’s dressing room.”
Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) defines it similarly: “to attack or seize with an overpowering rush,” as in “bum-rush the stage.”
M-W dates the expression from 1987, though it doesn’t give the origin. However, 1987 was the year the hip-hop group Public Enemy released its first album, Yo! Bum Rush the Show.
Green’s Dictionary of Slang (Vol. I) attributes the usage to the title song on the Public Enemy album, but dates it to 1986. We assume that’s because Public Enemy was performing the song that year while it was the opening act for the Beastie Boys.
Since the album came out, “bum-rush” has been used pretty freely as a verbal phrase meaning to deliberately run into someone or something at full tilt.
The intent can be to ambush, push past, beat up, tackle, or shove aside. It can also mean to gatecrash, or push into a club or event without paying.
Though the expression is sometimes used in the sense of to have anal sex (likely a play on the British slang word “bum,” meaning buttocks), the usage we find most often has little to do with sex.
For example, a 2010 news story on the website TMZ reported that Kim Kardashian and Justin Bieber had been “bum-rushed” by an overenthusiastic 12-year-old fan.
And in late April the LA Weekly blog reported that a stand-up comic, Randy Kagan, had been assaulted and pushed off the stage at the Hollywood Improv. “I was blindsided, bum rushed,” Kagan is quoted as saying. (He had made remarks about a woman in the audience and her boyfriend took offense.)
As we said, this verbal usage is probably derived from the older phrase “bum’s rush,” defined in Merriam-Webster’s as “forcible eviction or dismissal.” M-W dates this one from 1904.
The “bum” in the phrase is a vagrant or tramp who’s thrown out of a place or forcibly escorted off the premises.
This sense of “bum” as a tramp is of American origin, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, and apparently so is the phrase “bum’s rush.”
Green’s Dictionary of Slang (Vol. I) says the phrase originated “in the saloons of late 19C New York where vagrants and other hungry people attempted to take advantage of the sometimes sumptuous free lunch counters, which were meant for drinkers only.”
Freeloaders, in other words, got the “bum’s rush.”
Here’s a mid-20th-century usage, courtesy of the Oxford English Dictionary, from Marten Cumberland’s novel Murmurs in the Rue Morgue (1959):
“Chotin was being given what the vulgar term the ‘bum’s rush.’ He was down the steps … through the gate and flat on his back on the pavement.”
Check out our books about the English language