Is it time to throw 'under the bus' under the bus?


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It's getting awfully crowded under that bus.

You know, the one under which politicians, athletes and others have been throwing people -- everyone from staffers to teammates -- for years.

To throw (someone) under the bus is a verb phrase meaning "to reject or betray (someone); to treat as a scapegoat; to put out of favor or at a disadvantage," according to the Double-Tongued Dictionary.

   
Are you ready to toss the phrase 'throw (someone) under the bus' under the bus?

If you have an idea for a replacement for the phrase that's sure to become annoyingly abused and overused, e-mail it to Ljohnson@post-gazette.com. We'll sort through the suggestions and pick out favorites.

   

The Urban Dictionary definition is similar, "To sacrifice some other person, usually one who is undeserving or at least vulnerable, to make personal gain."

Exactly who is throwing whom and from where did this much-abused phrase come?

Long a staple in the sports realm, the phrase experienced a resurgence in popularity (and overuse) earlier in the presidential campaign when Sen. Barack Obama eventually threw his former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr., under the bus, denouncing him.

The euphemistic phrase, which now also means jettisoning a political liability, has taken on a twisted and ubiquitous life of its own. The presumptive Democratic nominee seems to be a leader of the pack among under-the-bus flingers, slingers and tossers, according to cable news pundits and blogosphere scribes.

Mr. Obama has been accused of heaving his white grandmother; his former foreign policy adviser, Samantha Power; the former head of his vice presidential vetting committee, Jim Johnson; the Muslim community; public financing of presidential campaigns; his not-quite-e-mail-pal, Scarlett Johansson; and even his short-lived customized presidential seal -- all under the bus.

He's not alone. The presumptive Republican presidential nominee, Sen. John McCain, has been accused of flinging conservative radio talk-show host Bill Cunningham and the Revs. John Hagee and Ron Parsley under the bus, too.

The phrase can be traced to the early 1980s, although it's probably even older.

"It probably comes from touring road shows and rock shows or touring sports teams," said Grant Barrett, the Brooklyn-based creator and editor of the Double-Tongued Dictionary Web site and editor of "The Official Dictionary of Unofficial English."

"In the rock 'n' roll business, you are either on the bus or under it," according to a 1984 Washington Post article about singer Cyndi Lauper.

In that sense, it means you're either "in" or you're "out," as Ms. Auf Wiedersehen herself, Heidi Klum, would say.

How the phrase morphed into meaning someone betraying or scapegoating someone else is a bit murky.

Paul Dickson, author of "Slang -- the Topical Dictionary of Americanisms" traced it to a phrase from minor-league baseball, "The bus is leaving, get on it or under it."

For short distances, buses are primary modes of transportation for sports teams and political campaigns.

"The idea that someone was thrown under the bus last night because he made a mistake," could be where the meaning started to shift, said Mr. Dickson, also author of the "Dickson Baseball Dictionary."

Mr. Barrett believes the morphing of the phrase may have started with basketball teams.

"The whole idea was, if you're not on the bus, we're not waiting for you," says Mr. Barrett, who also co-hosts the call-in program "A Way With Words," heard on National Public Radio. "Sacrificing the interest of one person for the good of the whole."

A casual Internet search indicates that within the past two weeks, embattled singer Amy Winehouse's father threw her under the bus, declaring to the world that she's suffering from emphysema. The songstress's people then returned the favor, throwing Ms. Winehouse's father under the bus, saying he was wrong and she wasn't suffering from emphysema.

Former White House press secretary Scott McClellan did it to President Bush in his book, "What Happened: Inside the Bush White House and Washington's Culture of Deception," and in congressional testimony recently, saying the administration misled the country about Iraq and still is concealing the truth about the leaking of CIA operative Valerie Plame's name.

Katherine Heigl, who plays Dr. Izzie Stevens on "Grey's Anatomy," did it to the writers of the medical drama when she took her name out of Emmy consideration.

"I did not feel that I was given the material this season to warrant an Emmy nomination," she said in a statement to the Associated Press explaining why she decided against competing. She did, however, win an outstanding supporting actress Emmy for the role in 2007.

In Massachusetts, Gloucester Mayor Carolyn Kirk did it to Gloucester High School principal Joseph Sullivan, claiming his memory was "foggy" when he said there was a teen pregnancy pact at the high school.

Trying to appeal to people's sense of righteousness and decency, many writers in recent months have railed against the phrase, saying it's well past its prime. Some have even called for a moratorium on use of the metaphor, but politicians, pundits, journalists, politicos and others have not seen fit to oblige. It seems "to throw (someone) under the bus" won't go gentle into that good night.

"You get tired of saying the same things over, so you might grasp onto a new phrase and run it into the ground until you're tired of that," Mr. Barrett says. "Phrases are like rocket fuel and they're around for as long as they can be and then they kind of burn themselves out."


L.A. Johnson can be reached at ljohnson@post-gazette.com or 412-263-3903.


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