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Americans, at least, have for some time used buster in speech or dialogue as a generic form of address. It has a range of tonalities, from light to affectionate to grimly confrontational.

Listen, buster, you can't beat me no matter how hard you try!

All right, buster, this time you're going down for the count.

As an aside, few people know that Jimi Hendrix's nickname, which his close friends used, was Buster. (The guitar duo of Rodrigo y Gabriela dedicated one of their tracks, Buster Voodoo, to him.)

Etymonline.com has this to say:

As a generic or playful address to a male, from 1948, American English.

The OED gives this:

Also used as a slang form of address, usu. friendly or slightly disrespectful; ‘mate’, fellow

and has a few citations beginning in 1948 (no doubt where Etymonline got its origin date):

1948 A. Seager Inheritance 174 ― ‘Hi-ya, buster. What’s new?’ he heard a woman’s coarse voice say. 1962 A. Shepard in Into Orbit 101 ― ‘OK, Buster,’ I said to myself, ‘you volunteered for this thing.’ 1965 P. Arrowsmith Jericho xix. 199 ― If you go on accusing me of attacking you lot, buster, you’ll have the police to answer to.

Yet it's used as a name much earlier (Buster Keaton, Buster Brown, etc.), and as the title of comic strips and even a play (see below). It's hard to imagine that the two uses are unrelated.

Large image of a poster. The image on the poster is of another poster with the words "BUSTER IS COMING" written in red. The poster is at an angle and has a young boy's head exploding through the centre. The posters are signed R. F. Outcault

Indeed, Partridge's A Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English (Supplement, page 1042), gives us this:

Buster. 'A name for anybody whose real name may or may not be known to the speaker. Usually but not necessarily pejorative. "Now listen here, Buster, this means trouble!"' (Leechman): Canadian: adopted, ca. 1920, ex U.S.

It's not clear to me how it got its present meaning from burster or buster (meaning "a gay, roistering blade"), and it certainly doesn't seem likely that it arrived from the meaning of a breaker of horses.

So I'm wondering. Did this just spring into the language fully formed, like Athena from the head of Zeus? Or is there a more mundane, less divine explanation?

Additional Information

I recently watched a documentary on Buster Keaton, which said he got his nickname in a certain way. While I can't reproduce that here, Wikipedia has something close to it:

According to a frequently repeated story, which may be apocryphal,[14] Keaton acquired the nickname "Buster" at the age of about 18 months. An actor friend named George Pardey was present one day when the young Keaton took a tumble down a long flight of stairs without injury. After the infant sat up and shook off his experience, Pardey remarked, "He's a regular buster!"[15] After this, Keaton's father began to use the nickname to refer to the youngster. Keaton retold the anecdote over the years, including a 1964 interview with the CBC's Telescope. In Keaton's retelling, he was six months old when the incident occurred, and Harry Houdini gave him the nickname.

Although the story may be apocryphal, it does clearly point to a usage that was current at the time.

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  • I wonder whether the Dictionary of American Regional English has anything on this.
    – tchrist
    Jul 25, 2014 at 1:05
  • Good question. I don't have a copy of that. Is there an online resource?
    – Robusto
    Jul 25, 2014 at 1:12
  • Only kinda sorta.
    – tchrist
    Jul 25, 2014 at 1:18
  • Another odd thing about Buster is that it is used only in addressing someone — that is, used only vocatively — rather than as a way of referring to them. It seems not quite as pejorative as calling someone Bubba, but still less respectful than using Mister, Buddy, Mack, or Pal, which all can serve the same purpose: as a stand-in for someone’s name when you would otherwise use it in talking to them, but you don’t actually know the fellow’s real name. And I don’t believe that it works for women, either, any more than Mack would. Odd indeed.
    – tchrist
    Jul 25, 2014 at 1:25
  • When I was in america long ago, my hosts had a dog called Buster. They told me, he was named after some kind of sweet, something like a marshmallow, I think. Looking at it this way, "buster" could be another version of "sweety, honey, darling,..."
    – skymningen
    Oct 14, 2014 at 13:54

1 Answer 1

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Sense 2b of buster in the online OED is:

b. A form of address to (or occas. a term for) a person, esp. a man, variously expressing affection, familiarity, disrespect, or hostility. Formerly freq. in old buster.

First quoted:

1838 New Yorker 24 Mar. 4/1 That's generous, old buster.

Sense 2a, dating from 1833, is:

A person who or thing which is impressive or remarkable, esp. in being more than typically large, loud, etc.

So perhaps a big, loud person causes things to bust open, or causes a loud noise to bust out from themselves. Hence, buster.

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  • An interesting question, Mack. And this answers "from when", but we still don't know the "from what" or "how", Buddy. May 21, 2020 at 21:50

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