This term has at least three distinct senses. The first use of blockbuster was during World War II, meaning a large aerial bomb. It was formed from the words for a city block and bust, a verb meaning to break. A blockbuster was a bomb large enough to destroy a city block. Time magazine printed this in its 29 September 1942 issue:
Inside a sturdy observation tower a mile from the exploding block busters which the Army is now testing.1
The second sense means anything, especially a movie, play, or book, that is large, important, or popular. The term appears to have arisen shortly after the war, and was probably a play on the concept of the large bomb. Ironically, the term bomb in show business or publishing means a complete failure, while a blockbuster is a huge success.
J.H. Burns’s The Gallery of 1946 has this:
The largest woman in captivity...We call her blockbuster.2
The show business sense appears in 1957 in Godfrey Smith’s The Friends:
One day I had what seemed to me like a block-buster of an idea for a musical play.3
The third sense is from real estate. A blockbuster is a real estate agent who sells a house in an all-white neighborhood to a minority, especially black, family. Once the city block is busted, the other houses on the block are likely to come on the market at a depressed price and end up being sold to other minority families. This term, again created from the words for city block and bust, meaning to break, appeared after the war as well, and again was probably a play on the original concept of the aerial bomb. Only this time, it was not the size of the bomb that is the reference, but rather its ability to “destroy” a city block.
From Jack Lait and Lee Mortimer’s USA Confidential (1952):
They are kept out...with the same kind of coercion and violence that whites show when their neighborhoods are block-busted.4
Historical Dictionary of American Slang, v. 1, A-G, edited by Jonathan Lighter (New York: Random House, 1994), 190.
OED2, block, n.
HDAS, v. 1, 189.
Copyright 1997-2016, by David Wilton