Randy Britton e-mails: “I’ve noticed in much of the coverage of the BP oil spill that the press has taken to calling the oil well ‘busted.’ Since when is ‘busted’ the proper way to describe a broken oil well? It seems very colloquial and not a form I would expect to see in proper journalistic forums.”
Even now that BP’s troubled oil well in the Gulf of Mexico is being permanently sealed, news reports continue to refer to the “busted well,” particularly wire services like the Associated Press and AFP. Reuters was an early adopter, reporting on efforts to contain the “busted well” on May 3. Alternatively, busted has modified oil rig, or just plain rig. A database search of coverage of the BP spill finds the first recorded use of busted came nine days into the crisis on April 29, when the MSNBC host Ed Schultz said, “The busted rig is leaking — get this — 200,000 gallons of oil a day.”
Is busted overly informal for journalists? The verb bust certainly has colloquial roots, beginning its life on the American scene as a folksy variant of burst. (The same dropping of the “r” turned curse into cuss, horse into hoss and parcel into passel.) Building on earlier use as a noun, bust busted out as a verb as early as 1806, when Meriwether Lewis, while on his famous expedition with William Clark, wrote in his journal, “Windsor busted his rifle near the muzzle.” Since then, bust has worked its way into a wide variety of American expressions.
“Bust runs the gamut from slang to standard,” explain David K. Barnhart and Allan A. Metcalf in their book “America in So Many Words.” “When it is used to mean ‘to explode or fall apart or be arrested,’ bust is generally slang. In the sense of failing (especially financially) it is informal, as busting the bank in gambling lingo, while in the specialized sense of taming a horse it is standard, the only way to say busting a bronco.”
Despite its potential slanginess, busted is “not actually forbidden” in the news media, as the Boston Globe language columnist Jan Freeman wrote in August. Indeed, reporters often latch onto the occasional colloquialism that seems particularly expressive, and in this case, Freeman surmises they were drawn to the term’s “criminal-cowboy-macho connotations.”
Regardless of the reasons for its current vogue, it’s notable that busted was rarely relied on by the press to describe stricken oil wells before the BP disaster — even in incidents that were highly similar, such as the 1979 blowout of the Ixtoc I well in the Gulf of Mexico. Most of the precursors I found come from more literary sources. It was appropriate, for instance, in some light verse by J.W. Foley published in The New York Times in 1904:
Dear friend, there’s a question I’d like to ask you,
(Your pardon I crave if it vexes)
Have you ever invested a hundred or two
In an oil well somewhere down in Texas?
Have you ridden in autos (I mean in your mind),
With the profits you honestly trusted
Would flow from your venture in oil stocks — to find
That the oil well was hopelessly busted?
I can’t find fault in reporters drawing on the rich history of bust and busted in American English to add a little extra oomph to their dispatches from the gulf. Calling the well busted does evoke a looser, wilder state of disrepair than broken, or the more technically accurate blown-out. But after many months of news coverage, the phrase “busted well” has now turned into little more than a cliché. That’s a far worse journalistic offense than a bit of well-placed slang.
Ben Zimmer will answer one reader question every other week.