Daily Archives: January 5, 2010


Imagine a whole gang of Buster Keatons. The Keystone Kops could try to catch them, and great injuries and pratfalls would happen all around. Things would go bang. Masonry falling, people getting tossed around… And, of course, if it were made today rather than in the silent movie era, a lot of noise: police whistles, sirens, machine guns, screeching tires. And it would be a huge success. Like gangbusters.

Gang Busters was, in fact, a huge success. The true-crime-case radio show, which ran from 1936 to 1957, had exactly nothing to do with Buster Keaton or with the Keystone Kops, and was the perfect inverse of a silent movie: it was all sound and no vision. And such sound! The opening of each show featured a barrage of loud sound effects: police whistles, sirens, machine guns, screeching tires… By 1940, English speakers had taken this vigorous noise (and probably the great success of the radio show too) and mapped it onto vigorous being, and coming on like Gang Busters meant “doing really well.”

Which it has meant ever since, even though few people now know about the radio show; like gangbusters is by far the most common collocation for this word, and go (and going) and come on are the verbs that typically come before; go(ing) gangbusters is also common.

As to the overt sense of it, well, anyone can figure out what gangbusters means, and they won’t be wrong: “people who bust gangs.” When gangs were big news in the US – the roaring twenties, the dirty thirties – law enforcement officials needed to break them up and jail their members, and one who was successful at it (Eliot Ness is now the paragon) was a gangbuster. Not that they are a common vision of success now; the word seems to have taken on a life of its own such that a calling someone a gangbuster now would seem like a reference to the idiom.

And the word has the right sound and rhythm for a thumping success: three syllables, banging down the stairs like Buster Keaton, primary stress, secondary stress, unstressed, with the first syllable taking almost as long as the other two together, rather like the sound of something heavy hitting a floor and bouncing twice – or bouncing once and smashing across the floor on the second hit. The gang has a “bang” kind of sound, aided by the bursting b, and then the voiced stops with nasals give way to a voiceless fricative/stop pair /st/, like the the bouncing thing breaking, followed by the scattering sound of syllabic /r/. One is put in mind of James Brockman and Leonard Stevens’s song from the late 1920s, “I Faw Down an’ Go Boom.” Only in this case it’s a smashing success.

No need to stop just yet, though: gangbuster is a compound word. Gang comes from the verb gang “go,” as in Robert Burns’s “The best laid schemes o’ Mice an’ Men, Gang aft agley” – though Burns was no gangbuster where mice were concerned: “I wad be laith to rin an’ chase thee, Wi’ murd’ring pattle!” Anyway, gang (noun) refers to things that go together, and has more recently narrowed in sense to mean a nefarious group of persons. And buster is bust plus the agentive er; bust, in turn, is burst in an American vernacular alteration. Burst, like gang, is a good old Anglo-Saxon word, and it has always meant “break.” These days we think of it mainly as the kind of breaking that happens to things that go “bang” or “boom.” Which brings us back to Joseph Frank Keaton, who got his nickname Buster at a very young age from surviving a fall unscathed that an observer (Harry Houdini, in fact) reckoned could have broken bones. And it appears that he in turn was the original and source of the nickname and nonce-name Buster.


I have just learned that Lhasa de Sela, the singer who as a performer normally went just by her first name, died of breast cancer on January 1, 2010. “Llegarás mañana para el fin del mundo o el año nuevo.”

Her first CD, released in 1997, was called La Llorona, which is Spanish for “the crying woman.” Her untimely passing (only 37 years old) has surely left many of us weeping. “Llorando – de cara a la pared – se apaga la cuidad – llorando – y no hay más – muero quizas – ¿adonde estás?”

Lhasa was Mexican-American and lived more recently in Montreal, but her name was taken from the name of the capital city of Tibet. In Tibetan, it means “city of god” or “city of the gods” (lha “god” and sa “city” – although until about 14 centuries ago it was, it seems, called Rasa; ra means “goat”). Lhasa wherever you see it will be a reference to that city, whether it be in the name of the dog breed Lhasa apso or a personal name. And so it can’t escape bringing to mind images of the Potala Palace, the great white and red fortress-like structure that sits, like a protecting god, on a hill above the Tibetan capitol. “Comme un géant, ça c’est la ville.”

The Potala was the residence of the Dalai Lama and centre of his Gelugpa sect (not the only sect of Tibetan Buddhism, by the way). It was truly a centre of rarefied learning;  at 3.5 km above sea level, its air has only 68% of the oxygen you get at sea level. Lhasa was known as the Forbidden City for a long time, as it was closed to foreign visitors – and mighty hard to get to. “La route chante quand je m’en vais; je fais trois pas… la route se tait.”

The Dalai Lama was driven into exile in India in 1959. Tibet was annexed by China; Lhasa is still the capitol, but the Potala Palace is now a museum. The city has multiplied in size, mainly due to an influx of people from China. They, like most people around the world, say the name of the city as /la sa/. So why is the h there after the l? Because in Tibetan it’s not /l/ but a voiceless bilateral affricate. A what? It’s like the end of battle – from the t on – said crisply and whispered. Press the blade of your tongue against the palate around the edges, not in the middle, and then release it at the sides without voicing it. It’s a crisp, cutting sound. It’s not quite identical to the ll of Welsh, which is a fricative rather than an affricate; it is identical to the tlh of Klingon (yes, the Star Trek language invented by Marc Okrand, which just happens to have an “alphabet” designed for it that borrowed on the Tibetan alphabet’s shapes, which looked blade-like to the designers). “My name my name – nothing is the same – I won’t go back the way I came.”

Lhasa carries a special kind of exoticism. It is not the exoticism of lush tropical islands or jungles, of spaces teeming with humanity and animals; it lacks even the lush sound of Shangri-La. It is a high, cold, dry barrenness, windblown, a place where gods and the wind may travel hundreds of miles without meeting a soul, but also a place that is home to a colourful and elaborate Buddhism (a near-opposite to the austere Zen, which exists in greener climates): flamboyant deities and demons floating in blazes of red and yellow in myriad patterns. “He venido encendida al desierto pa’ quemar porque el alma prende fuego cuando deja de amar.”

But perhaps the best image to take with you now is the sand mandala: an elaborate design done by Tibetan monks, painstakingly, on a floor, a concentric, geometric design, depicting in elaborate detail and vivid colour a perfect Buddha land, a thing of splendour and beauty, all done with coloured grains of sand tapped carefully from small tubes and scraped gently into place, so that, after days and days of making, and a brief time for viewing, the windows and doors may be opened and the wind may take it all away. You can hear the sound as it sifts off into the breeze: lha-sa. “Soon this space will be too small and I’ll go outside to the huge hillside where the wild winds blow and the cold stars shine. I’ll put my foot on the living road and be carried from here to the heart of the world.”

(All quoted material in italics is from songs by Lhasa de Sela.)