By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
The word ‘busy’ is commonly used to describe hectic or frenetic activity: someone who is busy has a great deal to do, perhaps too much. They are actively engaged in something and conducting a great deal of activity. The word is from a Germanic root meaning ‘useful’ or ‘occupied’, and this derivation obviously makes sense: the word has retained this predominant meaning down the centuries.
But what are some useful alternative ways to describe the state of being busy? Here are some of the best synonyms – and a few antonyms, too.
Synonyms for the word ‘busy’
If someone is busy with something, they might also be described as being OCCUPIED with it. Obviously this word is from the verb occupy, which derives from a French word meaning to seize or take up: if someone is occupied with something, it is taking up their time, their attention, and (in many cases) their energy.
If they’re really busy, and exerting mental energy in thinking or worrying about it, they might also be described as being PREOCCUPIED.
Or perhaps you’d rather describe someone as being ENGAGED in a particular activity, or just generally engaged (as in ‘I’m afraid he’s engaged at present, so can’t speak to you’). It’s from the French gage meaning ‘pledge’, which is also why we talk of people who are pledged to marry each other as being engaged. In this instance, of course, the person has pledged to carry out a particular task or activity.
Another way of saying this is to say someone is INVOLVED in something, so is not free to undertake something else. And if you’re really busy with something you can be described as being ENGROSSED in it – a word that initially referred to the writing out of a document in large letters (from the Latin grosse meaning ‘large’, the same root as our modern word ‘gross’ for ‘fat’).
Then it meant to buy up all of a particular product, in gross, and then, in turn, to monopolise someone’s attention – hence the most familiar modern meaning of the word. Something which engrosses us keeps our minds busy, demanding or monopolising our attention.
EMPLOYED is another useful synonym which can be used to mean ‘busy’: it’s from a French word meaning ‘to apply’ or ‘to put to work’. If you’re employed on or with something, you’re busy with it.
Talking of being hard at work, INDUSTRIOUS is an adjective that’s often used to describe someone who is working hard or busily at something. The same goes for ACTIVE.
But what if you’re not describing a busy person but a busy place? Rather than saying the shops were busy, you might describe them as BUSTLING with people or activity. Similarly, a situation that’s busy with action, even slightly chaotic with energy and movement, can be HECTIC, FRANTIC, or EVENTFUL.
Hectic is a curious word, deriving ultimately from an ancient Greek word meaning ‘consumptive’ or ‘habit’: something which is so habitual to you that it consumes you. So we can see how it came to be used (in colloquial language, as the OED points out) to describe a state of feverish excitement or activity.
Indeed, originally it was fevers that were described as hectic, and using ‘hectic’ to denote a state of excitement is still best reserved for colloquial settings (rather than, say, formal writing).
Indeed, frantic is another word that started out with a pathological meaning, describing a state of actual madness: etymologically, it’s related to the words frenzy and FRENETIC, which is a slightly stronger adjective that can also be used to describe a state of busy excitement.
Antonyms for the word ‘busy’
So much for the synonyms; but what are the best antonyms for being busy? If you’re not busy, if you’re the opposite of busy, you might be described as UNEMPLOYED or UNOCCUPIED with any work or activity. If your lack of employment on a particular task is due to a lack of will – i.e., it’s your own choice not to be busy – you might even be described as IDLE or LAZY.
However, as these words have quite strong negative connotations, perhaps INACTIVE is the word you’re looking for. You’re not lazy, you’re just inactive … for now.
Meanwhile, if the shop or high street or cinema or whatever isn’t bustling or busy, but fairly UNBUSY, you might simply describe it as QUIET.