bust

1
[ buhst ]
/ bʌst /

noun

a sculptured, painted, drawn, or engraved representation of the upper part of the human figure, especially a portrait sculpture showing only the head and shoulders of the subject.
the chest or breast, especially a woman's bosom.

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Origin of bust

1
1685–95; < French buste < Italian busto, probably < Latin būstum grave mound, tomb, literally, funeral pyre, ashes; presumably by association with the busts erected over graves

Definition for bust (2 of 2)

Origin of bust

2
1755–65; variant of burst, by loss of r before s, as in ass2, bass2, passel, etc.

usage note for bust

Historically bust is derived from a dialect pronunciation of burst and is related to it much as cuss is related to curse. Bust is both a noun and a verb and has a wide range of meanings for both uses. Many are slang or informal. A few, as “a decline in economic conditions, depression,” are standard.

WORDS THAT MAY BE CONFUSED WITH bust

burst burst (see usage note at the current entry)
Dictionary.com Unabridged Based on the Random House Unabridged Dictionary, © Random House, Inc. 2020

BEHIND THE PHRASE

What does or bust mean?

The phrase or bust is used when someone is pursuing an end no matter what, even if they fail trying. Saying New York City or bust, for example, means someone is doing absolutely everything to go there.

How is or bust pronounced?

[ awr buhst ]

Where does or bust come from?

The phrase or bust may be associated with hitchhikers who’d write it on the signs they’d hold on the side of the highway while waiting for someone to offer them a ride (e.g., Vegas or bust), but the expression was apparently first popularized in the Colorado gold rush of the mid-1800s.

Following the discovery of gold in what is now Englewood, Colorado, people with little or nothing to lose began heading to an area of the state known as Pike’s Peak Country hoping to strike it rich. Around the 1850–60s, some of these dreamers began using the phrase Pike’s Peak or bust as they boarded up their homes and headed west through unforgiving weather and terrain—all for that sweet, sweet gold.

These gold-seekers didn’t invent the phrase, though. It’s recorded as early as the 1830s. Bust itself is a variant of burst, and or bust implies that one will violently break down or fall to pieces before giving up on their goal.

During the 2016 Democratic primaries, some die-hard supporters of the progressive Democratic candidate Bernie Sanders started an effort called Bernie or Bust. Some of these people pledged that they would not vote for Hillary Clinton if she won the Democratic nomination. Instead, they would write in Sanders, vote for a third-party candidate, or not vote.

How is or bust used in real life?

The phrase or bust follows the object of one’s ambition, such as a location or accomplishment (e.g., Austin or bust or 4.0 GPA or bust).

Or bust is often still used in the context of a trip, especially road trips. Nowadays it’s mostly used for enthusiasm and not meant to suggest that not arriving at the intended location is an actual possibility.

The phrase is also often used outside the realm of travel, and is meant to suggest that there is only one option and way forward, that anything else is defeat or failure (e.g., Our team is going to the Super Bowl or bust).

More examples of or bust:

“It’s win or bust for both Donegal and Roscommon at The Hyde after their opening Super Eights defeats and Bonner was making sure he had his troops rallied ahead of the long trip home to the north-west.”

—Michael Scully, Irish Mirror, July 2018

Example sentences from the Web for bust

British Dictionary definitions for bust (1 of 2)

bust1
/ (bʌst) /

noun

the chest of a human being, esp a woman's bosom
a sculpture of the head, shoulders, and upper chest of a person

Word Origin for bust

C17: from French buste, from Italian busto a sculpture, of unknown origin

British Dictionary definitions for bust (2 of 2)

bust2
/ (bʌst) informal /

verb busts, busting, busted or bust

noun

adjective

Word Origin for bust

C19: from a dialect pronunciation of burst
Collins English Dictionary - Complete & Unabridged 2012 Digital Edition © William Collins Sons & Co. Ltd. 1979, 1986 © HarperCollins Publishers 1998, 2000, 2003, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2009, 2012

Idioms and Phrases with bust

bust

The American Heritage® Idioms Dictionary Copyright © 2002, 2001, 1995 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. Published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company.