March 16, 2012
Buses and busses have been on my mind. No, not because tomorrow is the day when I’ll see urgings to “kiss me, I’m Irish.” Rather, it’s because of a sign at Williams-Cone School here in Topsham, Maine, where my son Robbie is a 3d grader. Every day when we walk him to school, I see this sign, which says “Busses Only.”
That can’t be right, I think. I see moms and dads giving kids hugs as well as kisses all the time at the door into the school, and some kids no longer want to be seen ever being kissed by their parents: busses only, indeed.
I’m quite familiar with this confusion of “bus” and “buss.” Mr Howell, my high school principal, had an unfortunate habit of pronouncing (over the PA system, no less) the plurals of one syllable words ending in “e” as if they were now two syllable words. So “roses” in his argot rhymed with “posies,” and “buses” rhymed with “hussies.” We howled (!) every time. All over America I’ve seen the plural of bus spelled as “busses.”
The two words have quite different roots. About “buss,” etymology.com says: buss, “a kiss,” 1560s; probably of imitative origin, as are Welsh and Gael. bus “kiss, lip,” Fr. baiser “kiss” (12c., from L. basiare), Sp. buz, Ger. dial. Buss. And adds:
Kissing and bussing differ both in this,
We busse our wantons, but our wives we kisse.
[Robert Herrick, “Hesperides,” 1648]
“Bus” — this is wonderful — is a shortened form of “omnibus,” the word Lafitte chose in 1820 for a new mode of public conveyance in Paris. The Latin word “omnibus” is the dative plural of omnis, meaning “all” (see omni-). So “buses” are really “for all.” That puts into striking relief the struggle that Rosa Parks, Bayard Rustin and other courageous African-Americans waged to assure that buses really were “for all.”