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Busk it, daddy, eight to the bar

There was some discussion among the editors last night about a word in one of the articles commemorating the late William Donald Schaefer, a passage describing Harborplace that included the passage “brick promenades that get jammed with buskers and balloon-animal artists.”

Buskers, it was argued, was too obscure a word for our readership, too British, and indeed it had only been used once previously in The Sun, back in 2003. But the lack of a more common word to describe musicians who perform in the streets and subways for voluntary donations was persuasive in allowing the passage to stand. Troubadors and minstrels seemed even less apt. Street performers is dully literal-minded.

Busk, the verb for performing thus, comes to us from the French brusquer, the Italian buscare, and the Spanish buscar, “to seek.” The word originally had a nautical sense, “to cruise about,” which evolved into the sense of “to go around selling” and thus performing. We are, of course, aware that some people take encountering an unfamiliar word as a personal affront, but sometimes we like to take a little risk.


One more: While I was off yesterday, at least until Mr. Schaefer joined the choir invisible, I neglected to post that your word of the week is up on the site. It is egregious.



Posted by John McIntyre at 2:28 PM | | Comments (18)


When you say "I went busking in college," it's a human sentence.

When you say "I used to play guitar on the street for money in college," people get the idea halfway through, leaving you the pitiful duty of completing a sentence neither you nor your listener have any more interest in.

Just because a word isn't used much in that one newspaper doesn't mean it's not getting a fair amount of use elsewhere. When I discovered Pandora and would read all the information they put up on the artists, I'd see it used there. Check out the description of Rodrigo and Gabriela; it's probably in there. I'm glad I'm familiar with egregious. When I started editing, I had to discover that's what one author meant by sounding out what he typed, which was something along the lines of "aggreejious" or some other equally distant spelling variation.

Buskin' is obscure? Where do you people live?

Couldn't agree more, Eve. How egregious!

It certainly is.

News Item: Spring is buskin' out all over!

Nimrod & The Bashful Buskers playing at a club near you. SRO!

@Picky, can we blame you Brits for coining the term "busking"? Inquiring minds want to know.

Ducky "California or Busk'" isaksson................ will busk for food.

Well that explains why so many buskers in this part of the world (Australia) seem to be from the US. You've forced them to leave by not having a name for them.

I like the word busker. I've never heard it before, but it has a colorful ring to it, and, as you have said, it is far more interesting than the alternatives. As I see it, a word becomes acceptable by being used repeatedly. Having introduced it, give it time. "Boo" to those who want to deny its place in our vocabulary.

Growing up in the shadow of San Francisco in the 1960's, buskers and barkers were a part of my childhood. You couldn't help but see them every time you went to Fisherman's Wharf, Union Square, Haight-Ashbury, or the Tenderloin (of course, going through the Tenderloin got to be a bit dicey for a while there though it's cleaned up a little recently).

You still see the occasional barker, but they are being replaced more and more by those people holding oversized signs and dancing on street corners. As for buskers, they have not disappeared entirely but they are not seen in the same numbers as when I was young.

By the way, if you're going to San Francisco be sure to wear some flowers in your hair. Unless you're going for a Labor Day Weekend show, in which case you need to have your Hush Puppies on.



During the '80s, coming off a recent divorce (1980), and having just arrived in L.A. from my hometown, Toronto, in 1979, I found myself spending many a balmy summer weekend photographing the fun-seeking denizens of the Venice Beach boardwalk scene. Muscle Beach, just off the strip, was, (and still is), an iconic tourist stop, reflecting the ultimate in the seeming So Cal obsession w/ the body beautiful.

In its day, this lively beach-side strip of funky, touristic brick & mortar shops, and sprawling outdoor vendors' booths offered a colorful and bustling backdrop to the amazing, almost constant Fellini-esque flow of sun-and-fun loving humanity. Along w/ the licensed, legit street vendors, there were countless engaging buskers (mimes, chainsaw jugglers, caricaturists, tarot card readers, singers, hoofers et al), and commercial hucksters plying their talents and wares, respectively, all seeking the coveted tourist (and locals') dollar$$$.

Those were heady, fun times, probably not unlike the percolating Haight-Ashbury scene of the '60s. But over time, the powers-that-be, i.e., the city authorities, eventually started putting their foot down re/ the plethora of unlicensed beach buskers and street vendors, and began requiring those
performers and entrepreneurs they deemed 'beach worthy', to pay an annual vendors/ performers permit fee----basically an official city sanctioned license to perform, or sell their wares on the Venice boardwalk.

The Venice, CA, 'authorities' also banned dogs on their 'strip' by the mid-90s, as local gangbangers were actually bringing their aggressive dogs to the beach w/ the intent to confront other dogs (and naturally, their owners), w/ often violent and ugly consequences. IMHO, this was a good move by the Venice municipal authorities, but sadly, folks w/ well-behaved, leash-controlled, unproblematic dogs are penalized, in a sense, for the bravado and selfishness of the anti-social gang members using their dogs as weapons.

Venice Beach is still a happening place----a must-see tourist destination---but for me has lost a lot of the spontaneity, freedom and joie-e-vie that the array of colorful buskers of the '70s and '80s brought to the summer boardwalk beach scene. The funkiness quotient has definitely dipped in more recent years.

I always marveled at the fact that there is a little, store-front synagogue right smack-dab on the Venice boardwalk. For me, it was always a bit surreal to see orthodox Jewish folk arriving at temple-on-the-beach, Friday at dusk, dressed in their modest, slightly formal sabbath fare, whilst über-tanned bikini-clad roller-skating gals, and Speedo-briefed surfin' dude-types passed close by, pursuing the fun-in-the-sun Southern California vida loca.

Oy veh, only in L.A.!

Cheers to buskers all!

Ducky "Surf's Up!" isaksson

It's also a way to encourage literacy and spark the mind. When you don't know a word (even if it's still English) it requires a certain amount of thought process to figure it out by using context clues around it. After all, they're everywhere- ESPECIALLY if you're in the Southern California area, I've noticed. So, why not give them their appropriate title? We're supposed to be PC, after all.

Yep, I think it's down to us, Alex.  I seem to remember in my youth it wasn't applied to street corner cacophonists but to the combos who worked the theatre and cinema queues in the West End of London.  I found them somewhat sinister, but I think that was because I associated them with the street band in that Margery Allingham novel (can't remember which one - John Cowan, any clues?) who turned out to be a bunch of murderers. And, for some reason, with the foraging teams in The Day of the Triffids. But enough of my juvenile nightmares.

The associated meaning (as in the title of Mr McI's post) of an extempore jazz improvisation has now escaped its musical confines, as in the terrifying conversation many of us will have experienced:

"But I haven't prepared a speech!"
"You'll just have to busk it."

Hang on. Say you're sorry. That last comment sounds as if I am implying I've been in demand for. Believe me, nothing could be farther from. Sorry.

Oh 'eck.

One nit-pick, Alex: Venice Beach in the '80s was nothing like the Haight in the '60s. (Summer of Love, baby!) They each had their charm, but it was a distinct charm and they were very unlike.


P.S. For those who fail to see the charm in each, I can offer no assistance.


Nit-picky point well taken.

Although the Venice Beach boardwalk 'scene' in the '80s had its gritty, and at times scary side, in my drawing a comparison w/ the Haight district in San Francisco in the '60s, I was alluding more to the air of freedom, the dominance of youth culture, and the acceptance of creative expression in performance and visual art that both communities shared, granted each in their own distinct way.

Of course, the drug-indulgent/ free-love lifestyle of the habitués, and young residents of '60s era Haight-Ashbury, coupled w/ the open expression of folk rock, psychedelia, and new age exploration and experimentation, all contributed to its unique, funky neighborhood feel----- quite distinct from what was happening two decades later at Venice Beach. Being a tourist mecca, mainly in the spring and summer months, Venice Beach boardwalk has traditionally been much more of a transient scenario, compared w/ the neighborhood, established urban street ambiance of the Haight district. In this respect they were very different.

I would argue that the '80s Venice Beach boardwalk scene had SOME aspects of the '60s Haight vibe, so I wouldn't say it was totally, as you put it, "nothing like the Haight in the '60s." But no point in quibbling.

Tim, I do concur that both eras had their inherent charm, and as you indicated quite different, but perhaps equally as engaging in their own unique way.

@Picky. So it was you Brits that came up w/ the busker appellation? I figured such. HA! Thanks for the amplification, and your boyhood literary allusions. Cheers!


Yeah, what Eve said.

The Tiger In The Smoke, Picky, according to Google. One of the characters (deceased) is named Martin Elginbrodde, no doubt in reference to the tombstone inscription:

Here lies Martin Elginbrod
Hae mercy on my soul Lord God
As I would do were I Lord God
And ye were Martin Elginbrod!

So it was, John! Rather an atmospheric, dark piece, if I remember, even for Margery. And Elginbrodde was the bloke who was supposed to be dead, but showed signs of being otherwise.

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About John McIntyre
John McIntyre, mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan newspaper, has fussed over writers’ work, to sporadic expressions of gratitude, for thirty years. He is The Sun’s night content production manager and former head of its copy desk. He also teaches editing at Loyola University Maryland. A former president of the American Copy Editors Society, a native of Kentucky, a graduate of Michigan State and Syracuse, and a moderate prescriptivist, he writes about language, journalism, and arbitrarily chosen topics. If you are inspired by a spirit of contradiction, comment on the posts or write to him at
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