I see that busyness is in the ODO, but is it an accepted, established, honourable, respected noun in academic, formal contexts? How can I check this?

'Busyness' is an acceptable word nowadays [I bolded this]...
seems to suggest otherwise, and compels me to determine all its implications. Does busyness connote anything hidden, insinuated, ulterior? I don't want to sound cheeky or strange, so to learn about its historical use, I purposely searched its use from 1700-1900, but what does this reveal?

  • 1
    If you wanted to see if the word is currently accepted in formal, academic contexts, wouldn't you be better served by checking the Ngrams for current usage, rather that stopping at 1900? Other ideas: for truly academic usage, maybe search in citeseer or the arXive (academic papers published in academic journals). Also try the COCA corpus.
    – Dan Bron
    Nov 21, 2014 at 13:49
  • The language of A S Byatt's Booker-winning novel Possession of 1990 is by no means either slangily open to less-established usage nor pointedly old-fashioned in the 20th century parts of the story (there are sections which deliberately pastiche 19th century style), but she had no qualms about using busyness in one of the 20th century sections.
    – Jon Hanna
    Jan 15, 2015 at 14:59

1 Answer 1


The "real" OED (which requires a subscription to access) has a definition for this spelling:

The state or condition of being busy; busy quality or activity; = business

That's a completely separate entry from the main one:

I. The quality or state of being busy. Obs.
I. 1. Anxiety, solicitude, care; distress, uneasiness. Obs.
I. 2. Diligent labour, exertion, effort. Obs.
I. 3. Application or commitment to a task or purpose; industry, diligence. Obs.
I. 4. Eagerness, earnestness, importunity. Obs.
I. 5. Fuss, ado.
I. 5a. Trouble, difficulty. Obs.
I. 5b. Disturbance, commotion; (also) an instance of this. Obs.
I. 6. Care, attention, observance. Obs.
I. 7. Activity, briskness, motion; = busyness n. Obs.
I. 8. Mischievous or interfering activity; prying, officiousness. Obs.

II. Something with which a person is busy or occupied
(This section also contains many obsolete definitions, but it's where current usages are defined).

I know that's a lot of "cut & paste" (I did have to work on the formatting though! :). I'm probably a typical "reasonably educated" Anglophone, in that before looking it up I didn't really expect to find a "current, valid" entry for the non-standard spelling in OED.

But I'm sure I'll have used it myself many times over the years - though probably more often than not I'd have used "scare quotes" to alert my reader that I'm using a somewhat "facetious" spelling purely in order to positively and unambiguously convey the state of being busy meaning.

TL;DR: The "word" has been around in English for well over 600 years, long before there was anything remotely like a standardised spelling. Ever since printed material became widespread, the i spelling has been "standard" (compare relative prevalence in that NGram link).

But the word had already acquired so many different meanings that by 1809 at least some people were attempting to reclaim the "core" sense of the word by associating it with the y spelling. Probably most people who ever use it today are like me, and think of it as...

quaint spelling, but useful if you want the semantically precise but relatively uncommon meaning.

It's a small sample size, but note that Google Books claims 27 instances of the busyness of the bee, as compared to just three for the business of the bee (none of which show the full context, so they may not even be for the sense under consideration).

  • So I went ahead and did the searches I suggested in the comments: one in citeseer, and one in the COCA; the former illustrates that busyness enjoys some currency in academic journals (particularly CS and the humanities), and the latter that the word is also used in the American vernacular, especially in magazines.
    – Dan Bron
    Nov 21, 2014 at 15:38

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy