Thursday, January 18, 2007

Coming on like gangbusters... by Dana Wall

A weekly crime fighter program was broadcast from the late 1930’s until the mid-fifties when television flushed all radio stories from listeners’ living rooms. “Gang Busters” was a popular police drama. The program signed on with ear-splitting sound effects. There were the noises of loud car engines, screeching tires, crashes, explosions, sirens, and machine gun fire, loudly mixed, and ending with a voice announcing dramatically, “Gaaang...Bussssters!”

Within a short time, at least as new usages are coined, people said about something that started with a bang, excitement, loud noises, or great energy that, “It came on like gangbusters.” The way the radio show “came on.”

I recall my eccentric uncle, for example, describing his energetic two-year-old nephew: “He comes on like gangbusters!”

People who remember the program are few. The expression has changed slightly, and now is dictionary defined: “GANGBUSTERS: go (or like) gangbusters used to refer to great vigor, speed, or success : the real estate market was going gangbusters | it's growing like gangbusters.”

Nothing is said about the radio drama origins of the expression, and the usage has changed to omit “coming on,” as the sound effects did when each episode began. It is interesting that the dictionary now includes “success” as a possible meaning for “like gangbusters.” That was never a connotation from the sound effect introductions to the crime show, although the law officers did always win.

The Associated Press recently quoted the General Electric International CEO, Ferdinando Beccalli-Falco, as saying, “We are living in an exceptional period of time when all of these economics are growing gangbusters.”

A reader familiar with neither the origins of the phrase, nor the present meaning of, “growing gangbusters,” might logically wonder what kind of vegetable a “gangbuster” is, and how economics might grow it. But probably not. I do wonder, though, if either Beccalli-Falco or the AP reporter knows the origins of the term.

The CEO is also contributing to another slight modification of the expression. He did not include the word “like” between “growing” and “gangbusters.”

If the expression survives in some form or another for another seventy years or so, the radio drama origins of “coming on like gangbusters” may be all but lost.
The CEO’s version is a good example of the ever-changing American language. Perhaps Google will preserve it by archiving this blog post.

“Honest” is another word undergoing meaning modification these days. When I was in tenth grade, the English teacher emphasized that “honest” was one of the words that “could not be compared.” A person was either honest or dishonest. The word was like “unique” in that way. “Unique” means “one-of-a kind.” We were, therefore, forbidden to say or write, “very unique,” or “more unique.” Unique was unique, and honest was honest.

The teacher rhetorically asked, “How much more honest is ‘more honest’ than just ‘honest’? A lie is a lie, a thief is a thief, and there is only honesty or dishonesty.”

Our present vice president, who sometimes comes on like gangbusters, by the way, had a different teacher. Commenting on his former assistant and friend, “Scooter” Libby, Mr. Cheney recently was reported to have said, “He is one of the more honest people I know.” “ of the ‘more honest’”?

“Honest” is simply “honest,” Mr. Vice President. It is not a comparative word.

Yet hardly an American eye blinked. My English teacher is still spinning, however. The Cheney sentence tells something, perhaps, about the evolution of “honesty” and also something about both the Veep and those he “knows.”

Using “more” or “most” with the word seems to render “honest” less than honest. So long as he made the word a comparative, why did Cheney not say Libby was, “one of the most honest people I know”? Did he mean that Libby is not just “honest;” he is “more honest,” but he is not “most honest”? Please!

Think of the power in the lie had Cheney simply said, “Scooter Libby is one of the honest men I know.”

Cheney’s version is a bad example of the ever-changing American language. These days, bad examples seem to be coming on like gangbusters.

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