Can-do: the all capable ‘-buster’

By Eleanor Maier, OED

The suffix ‘-buster’ is now ubiquitous and has contributed to the formation of hundreds of new words, designating anything from crime-fighters, horse-tamers, and ghost-hunters, to weapons, bestsellers, and cleaning products. ‘Gangbuster’, ‘ghostbuster’, and ‘blockbuster’ all owe their existence to a suffix which has seen several periods of popularity. Many of these words are treated in the entry –BUSTER comb. form, but some, such as gangbuster, are established enough to merit entries in their own right, and give rise to new meanings, words, and phrases in their turn.

The beginning of ‘-buster’

The suffix originated as a use of the noun ‘buster’, which itself is a variant of ‘burster’. The first sense in the entry –BUSTER is the most general, describing how the suffix forms a variety of compounds denoting things (both abstract and concrete) which ‘bust’, break, or destroy that which is specified in the first element. These compounds include coinages such as ‘gall buster’ (first recorded in 1835 and the earliest example in the entry) and ‘curculio buster’ (referring to something which destroys curculios, a type of weevil), as well as the familiar terms ‘ball-buster’, ‘chart buster’, and (formerly) ‘bronco buster’. In many of these compounds one can see alliteration and assonance being employed to create snappy slangy words.

Gangsters and ghosts

A more specialized use of the suffix is described in sense 2, where ‘-buster’ appears in words denoting an agent or agency that overcomes, deals with, or eradicates a particular problem. It was first used to describe people and organizations who tackled particular aspects of crime or wrongdoing, making its earliest appearance in 1920 in ‘Booze Buster’, a nickname for the law enforcer and Prohibitionist William Eugene Johnson.

During the 30s, 40s, and 50s, Americans regularly tuned in to the radio program Gang Busters, a serial presenting dramatizations of real police investigations. It was very successful and helped to popularize ‘gangbuster’ (first recorded in 1930), another word from the world of law enforcement. Sense 1 of GANGBUSTER n. covers the literal sense, ‘an officer of a law-enforcement agency who is known for successful (and often aggressive) detection of organized crime’, but it was productive enough to also be used as an adjective and adverb, and in ‘to come on like gangbusters’, a phrase first recorded in 1940 and used to suggest actions performed with great energy or force. The popularity of the serial also helped in the formation of further expressions involving organizations which ‘busted’ various perpetrators of crime and wrongdoing.

Nearly 50 years later another piece of entertainment gave a new lease of life to ‘-buster’. The 1984 film Ghostbusters concerns a group of men who start a company to help the citizens of New York City get rid of their pesky ghosts, their logo was a slightly startled spook trapped by a red circle with a line through it.

The popularity of the film resulted in slew of products and services which incorporated Ghostbusters’ suffix and often its logo. For example in the field of cleaning alone one can find Grimebusters, Dustbuster, Dirt Buster, Mold Busters, PestBusters, and so on (all proprietary names). Searching the US and UK trademark indexes for goods and services with ‘buster’ in their name brings up thousands of results.

The 1984 New York Times article quoted at sense 2 of –BUSTER bemoans how the popularity of the film Ghostbusters has resulted in both the logo and the suffix becoming inescapable. It ends with the following suggestion:

Enough already. There comes a time in the history of any good idea when to copy it anymore is to run it into the ground. That time has arrived for this symbol. It’s time for the final derivation: something like Busters Busters.

Bombs and bestsellers

We have seen how Gang Busters and Ghostbusters gave ‘-buster’ a boost. A third burst of popularity dates from the Second World War, when soldiers used the suffix in the slang names they gave to various pieces of weaponry. The suffix punchily conveyed the force of the weapon concerned, and again in ‘bunker buster’, ‘balloon-buster’, and  ‘block-buster’, alliteration was employed for extra impact, perhaps reaching a head in ‘Burma Bridge Busters’. The suffix again found its way into popular culture in the 1955 film The Dam Busters, whose title referred to the bombing of Germany’s dams during the Second World War (see the 1946 quotation at sense 3 of –BUSTER). Just as ‘gangbusters’ is used in several extended senses and phrases, one of these military words also went on to have a productive life of its own.

A block-buster was originally a bomb which was powerful enough to destroy several city blocks, but it is now chiefly associated with highly successful films and, to a lesser extent, books. This in turn has given rise to the humorous (and very British) term ‘bonkbuster’. The ‘–buster’ part of this word having undergone so many incarnations it can no longer be analysed as a separate suffix.

Going further

  1. To find out which menacing expression makes its first appearance in Ghostbusters, see Katherine Connor Martin’s article on the language of films.
  2. Eleanor Maier’s article on ‘-gate’ tells the story of another highly productive suffix.
  3. The Historical Thesaurus of the OED can be used to find more examples of law enforcers, including ‘myrmidon’, ‘crimebuster’, and ‘T-man’.