Ask the Critics: Where Does the Word ‘Busboy’ Come From?


Welcome to this week’s installment of Ask the Critics. (Read the whole series here.)

This week, Anil M. asks:

What’s the origin of the word “busboy” or “to bus” a table?

What an interesting question! Frankly, I had no idea, so I turned to etymologist Barry Popik.

It turns out that the word “busboy” has been shorted from the original term “omnibus boy,” used to describe an employee of a restaurant whose job it is to do pretty much everything: Wipe tables, fill glasses, ferry plates back and forth from the kitchen, and so on. “Omnibus boy” was used from the late 19th century, and condensed to “busboy” around the turn of the 20th century.

Of course, these days we prefer to call those folks busers or runners, since busboy has a condescending edge.