Under the Bus

March 24, 2008

Sometimes it seems that a word or phrase suddenly gets used a lot, which raises questions of why and what it really means. One such phrase recently was "under the bus," which got a lot of usage after Barack Obama distanced himself from his former pastor Jeremiah Wright. Newsweek had an interesting piece entitled "Who's to Blame for 'Under the Bus'?." Here are a few highlights:

But the metaphor-"throw him under the bus"-is tougher to explain. Where did it come from? Why is it suddenly ubiquitous? And at the risk of sounding overly sensitive, is it even advisable, given its ugly echo with the "back of the bus" legacy of African-Americans?

In the last few years, "thrown under the bus" has become the leading cliché of the political blame game.

... In general, "thrown under the bus" is a metaphor for what happens when someone takes a hit for someone else's actions. But unlike its etymological cousins, "scapegoat" and "fall guy," the phrase suggests a degree of intimacy between the blamer and the blamed.

... Another reason for the star turn of the phrase could be the lazy nature of the human mind. In live conversation, people unconsciously grab the first phrase that comes to them, which more often than not is what someone else just said, according to Geoff Nunberg, the one-time chairman of the American Heritage Dictionary's usage panel and now a linguist at UC-Berkeley's School of Information. ... The underlying principle is simple: once a person says "throw him under the bus," the phrase lodges itself in the foreground of the mind, where it becomes the first phrase retrieved in conversation. Parrots do the same thing.

But who was the first person to squawk about throwing someone under the bus, or being thrown under themselves? In an interview with NEWSWEEK, William Safire, the author of "Safire's Political Dictionary," traced the popularization of the phrase back to Cyndi Lauper, who jauntily tossed her critics "under the bus" after the release of her debut album "She's So Unusual" in 1983, says Safire. But he suspects that the phrase has deeper roots in minor-league baseball, where players are almost always bused to away games. In fact, its original meaning could be have been quite literal: be on time for the bus, or you will be thrown underneath it, into the storage bays. He says the metaphor has also been used as a way to say "get with it, or get lost," as in "you're either on the bus, or you're under it." He isn't quite sure when the meaning of the phrase crystallized into the act of "summarily and decisively rejecting someone."

What's most striking about the sudden ubiquity of "thrown under the bus" is that it doesn't seem to fill any particular need. "It does the same work as 'thrown off a pier' or 'tossed out a window,' according to Nunberg, the Berkeley linguist, who declined to add yet another theory to origin of the phrase ... But it's still a drain to hear the same phrase over and over, channel after channel, column after column. It might be time to throw "under the bus" under the bus.
It is important to think about the phrase we use to make sure we clearly communicate what we intend.