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Crime-fighting term is still going gangbusters

May 29, 2016

Things can now be "going gangbusters" because of a WWII-era radio crime-fighting drama with sirens and gunfire and other loud noises.

"Gangbusters is a great word which I had not thought very much about until one of our listeners wrote in and said ‘There’s an interesting word for you to talk about,'" says University of Michigan English Professor Anne Curzan.

"Then I started hearing the word everywhere, and realized it was on my radar. Gangbusters goes back to what it sounds like it might go back to, which is a gang buster, someone who busts gangs."

Curzan says The Oxford English dictionary first included "gangbusters" in 1930 to mean a law enforcement officer who fights organized crime, as in the days of Al Capone. 

"And then you get this radio show that airs between 1937 and 1957 called Gangbusters. I listened to an old clip of it, and at the beginning you get all of this loud noise, the sirens, so the show Gangbusters starts like gangbusters,”  Curzan says.

"And that’s where you see very quickly “going like gangbusters” or “coming on like gangbusters” – coming on with a lot of force, a lot of excitement, a sense of urgency."

Is there such a thing as a singular gangbuster?

“It’s very true that ‘gangbusters’ is more common, but you will see 'gangbuster' in something like 'That company had a gangbuster month,’” Curzan says. "The word has shifted a little bit. It used to mean ‘to start with excitement’ or 'to start with a bang.' Now it can mean to be successful."

And slang terms can go like gangbusters.

"I have some great examples students taught me over the last year, which is what is happening with the word 'low-key.' It can mean at  least two different things. One is 'kind of,' as in ‘I’m low-key stressed,’ which means I’m not super-stressed.

"And then it can also mean secretly, as in 'I’m low-key into him,' which could mean 'I’m only kind of into him, not super into him.' But it could mean 'I’m into him but other people don’t know.'"

Another example of the term: When one of Curzan’s students was setting up a tripod for a video recorder, and one of the tripod legs wasn’t working.

She said, “I low-key broke it.”

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