touts, scalpers and buskers

Zhoen thought she knew BrE pretty well, but then...
Just came across a new Br/E expression I'd never heard used before, touting. Which in Am/E is scalping, buying tickets, then selling them right before the event for a very high price.
She included the following contrastive examples in her e-mail:
Glastonbury founder Michael Eavis explains why the photo ID scheme in place for this year's festival could mean the death of the ticket tout. BBC News

Authorities turn up heat on scalpers.
My first thought on this was that (BrE) ticket touts sometimes have different practices than (AmE) scalpers. Either might buy tickets to an entertainment event and then re-sell them for a higher price, but the English ticket touts that I encounter most often haven't invested in the tickets in the first place. These touts operate in London Underground stations, cadging* Travelcards (day-long tickets) from people who are finished travel(l)ing, in order to re-sell them (or possibly use them themselves). A disembodied voice at Victoria Station instructs travel(l)ers not to give unused tickets to touts because the money is used for illegal activities or drugs (or something like that). One would presume that their business is falling away rapidly, as the Oyster Card (a pay-as-you-go card) is quickly replacing the Travelcard for all but tourists.

So, there I am thinking that ticket tout has a broader meaning/use than scalper, until I read the OED on scalper, which tells us that the original ticket scalpers were:
U.S. slang. One who buys and sells at a profit, but at a price lower than the official one, unused portions of long-distance railway tickets.
So, it's all the same thing, then--although the most recent quotation in the OED for this AmE sense is from 1891. The more recent sense of scalper is not unknown in the UK, but it is an originally AmE word--metaphorically related to the taking of actual scalps.

Thinking about touts/scalpers, led me to think about other street characters, and thus to the BrE word busker, meaning a street musician/performer--the type who puts a hat or violin case out for coins. AmE doesn't seem to have a word for this concept--I think one has to say street musician. How did I ever live without this word and its verb form to busk? My favo(u)rite busker in our old neighbo(u)rhood played the saw (We lived in a very busky place--and no, busky isn't BrE, it's LynneE.) We're actually trying to find him again to hire him for an upcoming event, so if you know a saw player in Brighton, please point him my way! This sense of busk may be related to an earlier sense meaning 'to cruise as a pirate', though the OED doesn't have full confidence in that etymology. But if you see a busker with an eyepatch or a hook for a hand, maybe you can submit that to the OED as etymological evidence.

While we're on the topic of music (wow, look at that pathetic segue!), this has nothing to do with dialects of English, but it does have to do with English, so I hereby note with amusement The Ex's single This Song is in English.

* This is not marked in the American Heritage Dictionary as BrE, but I hear cadge more often in BrE than I ever did in AmE--particularly in phrases like cadge a lift (AmE = beg/get a ride from). Michael Quinion over at World Wide Words has a nice little essay about it.


  1. I'd say you're 99% right about AmE not using the word "busker." However I've seen it used quite freely in the context of "Renaissance Faires" -- which are, of course, essentially a US phenomenon. From there, it's made its way into US fantasy fiction as well, especially those sorts that are set in medieval-ish settings.

    It probably began at RenFaires as the adoption of a specifically British usage, assumed (merely because it's British) to be 16th-century English. Whether it is or not, I don't know, but there's a disposition to regard anything British as automatically "old" for RenFaire purposes.

  2. We had a big problem over the last year or so with respect to scalpers. The cricket board was planning on refusing entry (to the Ashes) to people whose name didn't match the registered name of the ticket-purchaser. But the Ashes came and went without any later mention. They must have backed down.
    Scalping has always been a fact of the sport and entertainment industries. The only thing to have changed is the capability of scalpers to sell tickets to sold-out events to anyone at any time on eBay.
    I reckon we should retain scalping and dispense with eBay.

    The ubiquity of very good buskers in Tube stations is something I love about London. Buskers in Sydney have to pay for the opportunity (bribery!) and are restricted to only a few areas.

  3. Every so often I am surprised by the absence of a word in US English, and busk(ing) is one of those. I guess it is easier to notice the presence of a novel word than the absence of a familiar one.

    I have recently read several articles about the concert violinist the Washington Post sent to busk in the subway (
    and I could have sworn that they used the word "busk", but the original article doesn't at least (although my Dad did when he forwarded me the link).

    It is like one of those false-memory experiments, when people read a set of words like "ocean", "sea", and "pacific" and then will mis-remember reading "water".

    Do you think that busker is more applicable to musicians? I would tend to apply it equally to people who juggle or otherwise perform non-musically. Perhaps this is because I juggled as a hobby when I was younger!

    I have only ever heard "tout" in the sense of enthusiastically talking up a product. Interested to learn about the other senses, including as a noun to refer to the person who touts.

  4. I was trying to capture the fact that a busker could be a non-musician by writing 'street musician/performer'. Note, though, that a busker must be doing it for money from his/her audience, otherwise it's just street theat{re/er}.

  5. An English girl I once knew (maybe from Hampshire?) told me that "heighborho(o/u)d" had an archaic sound to her and that she'd use a word like "area" instead. Can someone confirm that this is common? I can't really trust her since she also thought Neil Armstrong was English...

  6. We use the term "busker" in Canada. (It is in my Canadian Oxford Dictionary and it doesn't say "chiefly Brit." beside it.) I didn't know that the word isn't used in the States.

  7. I hear "busker" pretty commonly here in Colorado, so it might be a regional variation on a smaller than national scale.

    Chris's comment that "busker" might be returning to AmE through the venue of RenFairs also seems reasonable; many people who work the fairs during the summer work the streets during the off season.

  8. James, an American friend once told me that I lived in a nice "neighbourhood" in Edinburgh, and it sounded wrong. We'd probably have called it an "area" -The New Town, The Southside, Marchmont, Merchiston, Bruntisfield, Stockbridge, Canonmills, Goldenacre, Little France, The Old Town, Inveresk, Inverleith, Trinity, Morningside, Balerno, Corstorphine, Portobello .....: poetry to me.

  9. The London Underground touts are a fairly new phenomenon – as far as I am aware, they have only been around since to travel card , which was (according to wikipedia) 1981.

    However, I can certainly remember ‘traditional’ ticket touts standing outside Wembley Stadium selling tickets to the cup final in the 1970’s.

    I also suspect they were around at other sporting and entertainment events as well. Now-a-days, its all e-bay for selling the tickets. I suspect they would be arrested if they were caught outside the match. (They certainly tried to arrest them in the ‘70s)

    And as for the touts – they are like policemen - getting younger all the time.

  10. I'm an American and I use busk (whenever I have the chance), but I didn't pick it up from a RenFaire or Brits. My roomate in college in Boston busked a few times, with mediocre results, but I'm not sure when I first heard the term.

  11. And as for roomate, it's not a variant spelling. I just don't proofread... :-)

  12. My friends and I were mystefied at all the "no busking" signs around the London underground - we had to look it up when we happened across a bookstore later! I have heard it in the US occasionally since then, although now that I think about it the contexts were all Canadian...

  13. Quick q:

    is there some special meaning to detached housing in the UK? Because I've been noticing a lot of mentions of it (I think a bunch around the time that Prince William dumped his girl- her parents were apparently rich enough to have a detached house in the suburbs). Aren't most houses detached? I would only see putting semidetached as the marked term (but I would probably call it a duplex).

    Sorry if this is OT.

  14. When I search "busker" in the Boston Globe archives, I get a large number of hits. There may be pockets where it is usual.

  15. Let's please not discuss 'semi-detached' now...I'll do my next post on it for you. If we discuss it here, it becomes unsearchable.

    This is not the first time when we've seen Boston English being a bit more anglici{s/z}ed (but I can't remember the last time--not searchable because it's in the comments!)

  16. What's that word for that thing where you never hear a word but then you see it everywhere? Something to do with coincidence, or something. Anyway. A friend of mine is 'scalping' her Arctic Monkeys ticket because she spent a fortune on a Patrick Wolf ticket after hearing that he's quitting music. (I never got to see him, damnit). She lives in Minnesota.

    A favourite album of mine is called Hats Off To The Buskers, which I think is an AMAZING title.

    Lovely to see your upcoming event - all the very, very best for that :)

  17. Aren't most houses detached?
    Not in London. Most residences are free-standing houses that are divided internally. Generally speaking, if you have a detached house you are probably quite 'comfortable'.

  18. Lynne, at the risk of telling you something you already knew:

    Although Blogger's search tool doesn't provide for searching in the comments, Google's Site Search feature does.

    It's awkward, but better than nothing.

  19. I live in NYC and 'busker' is a common word here. In fact, I believe most street performers prefer to be called 'buskers'.

    And now for the funny thing - MY favorite busker is also a saw player! But she is in NYC... You can hear her play on her blog -
    Maybe she knows a sawist near you?


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AmE = American English
BrE = British English
OED = Oxford English Dictionary (online)