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Busker, noun.Busking is playing music in a public place, explicitly or implicitly inviting donations of coins from passers-by: “I made 20 quid yesterday busking outside Woolworth’s.” A person doing so is a busker: “If I hear another busker playing the Four bloody Seasons, I’ll strangle them.”

Perhaps the nearest U.S. equivalent is a street musician, though a busker need not be busking in the street; the labyrinthine passageways on the London Underground make popular busking spots or “pitches.”

London Underground formerly prohibited all busking, in theory at least, but in 2003 opened a small number of marked official “busking pitches,” which could be used by buskers who applied for a license. Needless to say, most Underground buskers continue as before to busk wherever they like in defiance of this system, whose official nature goes against the true spirit and spontaneous nature of busking.

The word originates in the 19th century; its origins are unclear, though it probably came from a nautical term meaning to cruise about, itself of dubious, though seemingly Romance, antecedents. (One proposed derivation too convoluted to reproduce here traces it ultimately to the Italian word “bosco,” a wood.) Among musicians, “busk” or “busk it” later developed a separate meaning to improvise (e.g. a drum line in jazz).

This sense also has entered more general usage, meaning to proceed by guesswork without a plan or “wing it:” “I’m busking it here, I’ve never driven one of these things. Is this the brake?”

Mark Wainwright is a freelance writer living in Cambridge.

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