How did the word 'busted' morph into a synonym for 'caught'?

Busted, down on Bourbon Street, Set up, like a bowling pin. Knocked down, it gets to wearin' thin They just won't let you be....

  • 10
    My first guess would be an evolution from the term "bust" as in, "This is a bust!" That, in turn, may have come from the action of busting down a door in an attempt to catch a criminal. But these are just hunches.
    – MrHen
    Mar 23, 2011 at 15:44

4 Answers 4


Green's Slang Dictionary has bust meaning a break in or a raid dating from 1865, but the earliest reference to a police raid is from 1938. Later the word came to mean any arrest or criminal charge. This usage probably derives from burst meaning a burglary, which it dates from 1834.

I can recall Philip K. Dick using the word burst as a typically Dickian substitution for bust in one of his novels (sadly I forget which one), which would have required commendable self-discipline in the days before word processors.


I would have thought that it has its origins in the law enforcement term '[To carry out a drug] bust'. Although it is often used interchangeably with the term raid, I would suggest that the physical act of gaining forced entry by "busting the door down" led to its becoming known as such.


Etymonline tends to back up MrHen's guess:

variant of burst, 1764, Amer.Eng. The verb sense of [...] "arrest" is from 1953 (earlier "to raid" from Prohibition).

Unfortunately this doesn't give us a lot of insight into how that meaning evolved, but "bu[r]sting in" to places where criminal activity is going on is as good a guess as any.

  • During Prohibition law enforcement would destroy (burst?) containers filled with alcohol during raids; perhaps there is a link there?
    – fbrereto
    Mar 23, 2011 at 21:51

I think it originated in the 1930s in Chicago during the rise of the Italian mafia. Busted was used by cops when they arrested a mob member, referring to Italian basta — "enough, no more".

  • 1
    Thanks for your contribution. I note that the accepted answer also refers to the 1930s, so you may well be right. However, the normal protocol on this site is to provide some independent sources to substantiate an answer (rather than just "I think"). If you have ant such references, perhaps you would supplement your answer accordingly.
    – TrevorD
    Jul 27, 2013 at 0:45