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Philip Taylor wrote:

An Economist article (not pay-walled but may require registration) today spoke of something which "grew like gangbusters". Until now, I had never encountered that particular simile, but I see from the OED that it is older than I. Is it (a) a simile with which you are familiar, and (b) possibly worth discussing on Language Log ?

"Lacks’s tumour cells, it turned out, grew like gangbusters …"

The various nominal, adjectival, and adverbial uses of gangbuster(s) are certainly familiar to me — and will be well known to most Americans, I think. And the patterns of use are indeed well covered in the OED, and also (with less detail) in Wiktionary, Merriam-Webster's, etc.

As far as I can tell, contemporary use is exclusively figurative, except for rare historical references in the original sense, which M-W glosses as "one engaged in the aggressive breakup of organized criminal gangs". I don't think I've seen the term used literally except in reference to gang-busting in the Prohibition era a century ago — though no doubt readers will find some examples.

There are two things of linguistic interest about gangbuster(s), I think.

First, it illustrates the way that a noun in English easily turns into a modifier (as if it were an adjective or adverb). Some recent examples from the NOW corpus:

And the crowd is gangbuster nuts.
The latest gangbuster jobs data seemed to dampen those fears.
Moderna and Pfizer had gangbuster COVID vaccines.
That's not a gangbuster number, but it's not a bust, either.

It won't be gangbuster but it will be solid.
This is gangbuster!!!!!! Look at the market reaction.
Host Andy Cohen referred to the reunion as "gangbuster".

It's not gangbusters stuff.
Netflix has been doing gangbusters business with its reality shows.
That's not gangbusters sales growth, but that's solid.

…a gangbusters spooky slasher…
The headline job growth is gangbusters strong.

The first home buyers are likely to be in gangbusters.
It's been selling gangbusters all year.
The special ended up doing gangbusters on QVC.

Second, why did this particular word go figurative gangbusters, long after its literal uses evaporated?

That's probably just as hard to answer as all other questions about (the fine details of) cultural evolution. But clearly part of the picture was the adoption of the term by people writing (and presumably talking) about economics and marketing — to whom the appeal of aggressive success is obvious.

Update — Wikipedia informs us that "Gang Busters is an American dramatic radio program heralded as "the only national program that brings you authentic police case histories." It premiered on January 15, 1936, and was broadcast over 21 years through November 27, 1957." Plus "The popularity of the radio show prompted a spin-off comic book published by DC Comics, which ran for 67 issues between 1947 and 1958."

So there's the cultural boost…



  1. Y said,

    October 9, 2022 @ 10:26 am

    I get the impression from its earliest uses that it brought up the image of a crowd of cops bursting in through a door.
    Also, cf. the WW2-era blockbuster.

  2. Davis X Machina said,

    October 9, 2022 @ 11:08 am

    The explosive, sound-effect-loaded opening of a long-runninf US radio serial of the same name.

  3. Mary Sweeten said,

    October 9, 2022 @ 11:21 am

    Blockbuster as in white flight? Or as in giant success? Is it the same word, and how did it get positive and negative uses?

    [(myl) The OED sez that blockbuster was originally "an aerial bomb capable of destroying a whole block of buildings". Whether that's positive or negative depends on whether you're the bomber or the bombee, I guess…]

  4. Mary Sweeten said,

    October 9, 2022 @ 12:03 pm

    So I guess "blockbuster" now being an affirmation is kind of like "loss-leader," which sounds bad but isn't … necessarily.

  5. Thomas Lee Hutcheson said,

    October 9, 2022 @ 12:45 pm

    Oh yes. I remember the radio series well.

    My iconic use of the phrase would be "come on like gangbusters" the metaphor being the sudden rush of high volume as multiple police officers breaking through a door.

  6. Sniffnoy said,

    October 9, 2022 @ 12:56 pm

    My understanding was that the original phrase was "to come on like gangbusters", meaning to begin suddenly and aggressively, because Gang Busters was known for its loud opening; and that the sense of "gangbusters" then generalized from there.

  7. SS said,

    October 9, 2022 @ 1:42 pm

    It seems likely that the Ghostbusters movie was indirectly inspired by the radio show or comic. There was an earlier 70s tv show called "The Ghost Busters," and both involved a team employed in busting ghosts.

  8. techtock said,

    October 9, 2022 @ 3:18 pm

    My initial response was that this was one of those phrases that crops up in newspapers far more often than in everyday conversation.
    I don't mean phrases used to help shorten headlines incidentally. Just phrases that seem to have a journalistic life outside everyday speech, such as "a raft of measures".

    Google searches such as
    indicate reasonably frequent use in UK media (my experience of newspapers is primarily British).

  9. Bob Ladd said,

    October 9, 2022 @ 3:56 pm

    I'm certainly familiar with the expression as used in the quote from the Economist in the OP, and I think I was vaguely aware that there was a radio show called Gangbusters (I'm just barely old enough to remember that there was such a thing as radio drama series). But I've only ever encountered the expression in the plural, so some of the singular uses Mark quotes from the NOW corpus sound odd to me. (Google n-gram confirms that since about 1960 the plural form is increasingly more common than the singular.)

    And FWIW, I never made the connection between Ghostbusters and gangbusters, which suggests I really only know the word as an emphatic/superlative, not a reference to actual people who bust gangs.

  10. BillR said,

    October 9, 2022 @ 7:57 pm

    I grew up in the US Midwest-Great Lakes region, and I remember using the phrase as a teen, but have (and likely had) no idea where it came from. I still use it occasionally to describe an event or process that comes on abruptly and ends quickly.

  11. Bloix said,

    October 9, 2022 @ 9:51 pm

    See for the evolution of the expression's meaning.

  12. Philip Anderson said,

    October 10, 2022 @ 2:39 am

    Like Philip Taylor, I had not met gang buster before, and it seems odd for the Economist to use the word (US writer?).
    For the -buster suffix there are more examples here:
    In the UK we have the Dambusters, blockbuster is metaphorical only but tank-buster has kept its literal meaning.

  13. KeithB said,

    October 10, 2022 @ 7:57 am

    By one of those coincidences, we were watching the Canterville Ghost from 1944 (Charles Laughton, Robert Young and Margret O'Brien) where a block-buster shows up for the climax of the movie.

  14. Robert Coren said,

    October 10, 2022 @ 9:10 am

    "Grew like gangbusters" sounds odd to me. My impression is that like gangbusters usually modifies forms of the verb go.

  15. Barbara Phillips Long said,

    October 10, 2022 @ 4:54 pm

    A Facebook comment on a story about the Breonna Taylor shooting (charges were dropped against her boyfriend, who shot at the police) — note that the transcript of the story doesn't use gangbusters:

    "Good!! They came through their door like gangbusters. I would have shot at them too!!"

  16. J.W. Brewer said,

    October 11, 2022 @ 7:00 am

    WW2-era "blockbuster" seems a bit more recent than the Depression-era "gangbuster" in its original law-enforcement sense, so if "gangbuster" was modeled on anything I should think "trustbuster" would be the obvious candidate. One associates the latter with the presidency of Teddy Roosevelt, but the google books corpus has examples from slightly earlier in the late 1890's. NB that in AmEng "trust" in the sense of "monopoly, cartel" is generally obsolete except for being preserved in "antitrust," putting "antitrust" into the same class of words as "uncouth" and "feckless" etc.

    A lexicographic inquiry for another day might be how, if at all, "gangbuster" relates to the rise of "bust" as an informal AmEng synonym for "arrest" (BrEng "nick"). A brief skim through google books suggested the "arrest" sense may not be as old as the military slang usage, in which getting "busted" means being reduced in rank, typically as a sanction for misconduct.

  17. LW said,

    October 11, 2022 @ 2:25 pm

    like Philip Anderson , i've also never heard the term "gangbusters" before, at least not that i can remember. but the "-busting" prefix immediately makes me think of "union busting" (, which i assume is inspired by "gang busting". or perhaps both derive from some other origin?

    is "blockbuster" (as in movie) related? what block is being busted there?

    [(myl) Explained in response to an earlier comment.]

  18. J.W. Brewer said,

    October 12, 2022 @ 10:19 am

    If "gangbuster" was modeled on "trustbuster," that just raises the question of what "trustbuster" was modeled on, although no doubt the rhyme helped. From the google books corpus it looks like "bronco buster" came into use in AmEng about a decade before "trustbuster," facilitated ironically enough by future trustbuster Teddy Roosevelt in his popular writings about cattle-ranching in North Dakota. While I had thought of "sodbuster" as a very 19th-century AmEng word, it seems extremely scarce in the period (subject to the limitations of the book corpus, which doesn't capture newspapers etc) and was maybe subsequently applied anachronistically. NB that while pretty much all NOUN-buster compounds I can think of have the same compositional semantics ("one who busts NOUNs"), the verb "bust" has a wide range of varied senses and it may not always be predictable which one goes with a particular target NOUN.

  19. Philip Anderson said,

    October 12, 2022 @ 4:26 pm

    @J. W. Brewer
    Buster from burster apparently.

  20. Michael Watts said,

    October 12, 2022 @ 5:37 pm

    My instinct is that "like gangbusters" (I wouldn't call it a simile, just a fixed expression – to say that something "grew like gangbusters" is syntactically parallel to saying it "shone brightly", not that it "shone like the stars") is an intensifier with no particular semantics. I don't really find "grew like gangbusters" odd; I would interpret that to mean growing at a very fast rate.

    But it's true that it makes no sense for the expression to originate as a generic intensifier; I find the proposed origin of "conveying the image of many cops suddenly rushing through a door" interesting.

  21. LW said,

    October 14, 2022 @ 11:36 am

    myl: "Explained in response to an earlier comment"

    i see that's true, in a literal sense, but i was thinking of "blockbuster" in the sense of a popular movie, rather than military ordnance.

    etymonline says: "Entertainment sense "spectacularly successful production" is attested by 1952. U.S. sense of "real estate broker who sells a house to a black family on an all-white neighborhood," thus sparking an exodus, is from 1955."

    … which i suppose (given the dates involved) means that meaning comes directly from the military sense – but i was interesting to learn the second sense, which i've never heard before even from US sources.

  22. J.W. Brewer said,

    October 14, 2022 @ 7:29 pm

    @LW: that racialized real-estate sense is sort of a "period" AmEng term from a now-bygone era – many of the techniques that made it profitable were made illegal in 1968 and wikipedia at least thinks the practice had largely died out by the end of the 1970's. The point of it being a pejorative was less the initial sale that might spark an exodus than what was perceived as cynical attempts to profit from the exodus thus sparked.

  23. Alyssa said,

    October 16, 2022 @ 12:14 am

    There's an old jazz song from 1940 – "Gangbusters" by The Cats and The Fiddle – that opens with the phrase "Man that cat fell in like a gang buster." It seems like a compliment for a jazz musician that joins the ensemble with confidence:
    "Fall in like a gang buster
    Start to swingin swing
    'Cause it will be your way of showing how to gettin' the groove today"

    This seems to fit better with the "cops bursting through a door" interpretation rather than a reference to the radio show.

  24. Andrew (yet another one) said,

    October 23, 2022 @ 7:17 am

    Here in Australia it's a common enough usage, but almost always in the construction "to go gangbusters". I have a vague recollection of former Prime Minister Paul Keating using it to describe the state of the national economy.

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