By Anatoly Liberman
Here, for a change, I will present two words (cuss and bust) whose origin is known quite well, but their development will allow us to delve into the many and profound mysteries of r. Both Dickens and Thackeray knew (that is, allowed their characters to use) the verb cuss, and no one had has ever had any doubts that cuss means “curse.” Bust is an Americanism, now probably understood everywhere in the English-speaking world. The change of curse and burst to cuss and bust seems trivial only at first sight.
The sound designated in spelling by the letter r differs widely from language to language. Even British r is unlike American r, while German, French, and Scots r have nothing in common with Engl. r and one another. All kinds of changes occur in vowels and consonants adjacent to r. Those who know Swedish or Norwegian are aware of the peculiar pronunciation of the groups spelled rt, rd, rn, and rs. In some Germanic languages, postvocalic r tends to disappear altogether. In British English, it seems to have merged with preceding vowels some time later than the beginning of the seventeenth century, because most dialects of American English have preserved postvocalic r; in their speech, father and farther, pause (paws) and pours are not homophones.
In principle, nothing of any interest happened to Engl. r before s. But when we comb through the entire vocabulary, we occasionally run into puzzling exceptions. Thus, a common word for the waterfall is foss, an alteration of force. This force, unrelated to force “strength, might” (of French descent), is a borrowing from Scandinavian. Old Norse had fors, but in Old Scandinavian the spelling foss already turned up in the Middle Ages, and this is why I mentioned the treatment of rs (among other r-groups) in Swedish and Norwegian. Today in both of them rs sounds like a kind of sh to the ear of an English-speaker. Therefore, one could have expected Engl. fosh rather than foss. Forsch did occur in Middle Low (= northern) German, but the extant English form is only foss.
A similar case is the fish name bass. (I am very happy to return to the fish bowl.) All its cognates have r in the middle: Dutch baars, German Barsch, and so forth. The word is allied to bristle. Apparently, r was lost before s in Old Engl. bærs (æ had the value of a in Modern Engl. ban). In the name of the game prisoner’s base (a kind of tag with two teams, as probably everybody knows), base may go back to bars. If so, bass, the bristly fish, and base, the game in which participants find themselves behind “bars,” had a similar history.
Another fish name is dace, from Old French dars. Among the fifteenth-century English spellings we find darce and darse. It may not be due to chance that the loss of r before s occurs in words belonging, among others, to fishermen’s vocabulary and children’s lingo. Analogous cases are known from hunters’ usage. The phonetic change in question looks like a feature of unbuttoned and professional speech, for who would control the sounds of the “lower orders” and of the hunters’ jargon? The Standard treated it as vulgar. But fighting the street is a lost cause, though language does not develop from point A to B, C, and all the way to Z. It rather resembles an erratic pendulum; the norm of today may be rejected tomorrow, so that the conservative variant may prevail.
This is what happened in the history of the word first. In the pronunciation of many eighteenth-century speakers (in England), first was indistinguishable from fust- in fustian. Fust for first is not uncommon in today’s American English, but it is “substandard.” Also in the eighteenth century, nurse, purse, and thirsty occurred even in the language of the educated as nus, pus, and thustee. Shakespeare once has goss for “gorse,” and the idiom as rough as a goss has been recorded in the modern Warwickshire dialect. The devil is always worsted, but the fabric worsted is “wusted.” The place name Worstead is only for the locals to pronounce correctly. Those who are not afraid to be lost in this jungle may compare Worcester (UK), Worcester in Georgia and Massachusetts, and Wooster, Ohio. Rejoice that you are not reading a 1721 ad: “Thust things fust.”
This is then what happened to cuss and bust. Cuss, from curse, never left the low (base?) register, though everybody understands cussed and cussedness without a dictionary. Bust fared better (or worse, depending on the point of view). First (fust), its descent from burst isn’t always clear to the uninitiated, so that it became a word in its own right, rather than a shadow cast by burst. Second, although mildly slangy in the phrase go bust, it won a decisive victory in its derivative buster. (Do many people still remember that Theodore Roosevelt was called Trust Buster?) The word’s popularity was reinforced by Buster Brown, the character and the shoes. The “street” scored an important point — so much so that blockbuster is no longer slang. It may perhaps be called colloquial, but it has no synonym of equal value. A blockbuster is a blockbuster.
Perhaps someone is interested in the origin of bust, as in sculpture or in the ads for those women who suspect that their bust is inferior to that of Mrs. Merdle of Little Dorrit fame. It is a borrowing of Italian busto, a word, I am happy to report, of highly debatable etymology.
Anatoly Liberman is the author of Word Origins…And How We Know Them as well as An Analytic Dictionary of English Etymology: An Introduction. His column on word origins, The Oxford Etymologist, appears here, each Wednesday. Send your etymology question to him care of email@example.com; he’ll do his best to avoid responding with “origin unknown.”
Image credit: 17th century marble bust, from Florence, Italy, of Vespasian, (9-79), first roman emperor of the flavian dynasty, on display at Château de Vaux le Vicomte, France. Photo by Jebulon, 2010. Creative Commons CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication. Source: Wikimedia Commons.[Editor's Note: This post was revised on Wednesday, 5 September and again on 7 September when Anatoly realized a few mistakes. Please forgive any confusion.]