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"Threw Him Under a Bus"

"He threw him under a bus."

Where did this phrase come from? Suddenly it is the required phrase for describing the act of publically breaking with, or criticizing, or blaming, a former ally/friend/colleague/lover.

The Obama-Wright relationship has incited a massive outbreak of the phrase, which we can now officially declare to be overused. That doesn't mean that those who used it in recent days were guilty of cliche-mongering -- because this one congealed into cliche status with astonishing speed. (Searching for uses I see that David Knowles of the blog Political Machine says "under the bus" is number one on his list of the five most egregiously overused phrase of the campaign season.) (And Tony Dokoupil of Newsweek says the phrase caught fire after Obama's famous speech on race, when it was widely noted that Obama didn't you-know-what to Wright.)

Just to take a few examples of outbreaks in the last couple of days, someone on Hardball said, "His public performance in the last 24 hours has had the unintended consequence of throwing Senator Obama's campaign under the bus." In return, Obama distanced himself, at which point a number of people (for example, here) declared that Obama had thrown Wright under a bus.

Urban Dictionary says the phrase dates to 1988, though I doubt that (show me the footnotes). It offers multiple definitions, the earliest from 2002. Here's the most popular:

" sacrifice some other person, usually one who is undeserving or at least vulnerable, to make personal gain."

The second-most popular is also framed as a self-serving, fundamentally deceitful act.

But at least in the Obama-Wright affair there's nothing deceitful about Obama's decision to distance himself from the ranting Wright. So the third definition (which happens to be the one from 2002) would apply in this case:

' You get thrown under the bus when someone (usually a co-worker) reports some wrongdoing or slacking off to a superior or other influential person. Sometimes used with the suffix "Vrooooom!" to simulate the noise the bus would make as it passes by at a high rate of speed.'

I didn't check the transcript to see if Obama said "Vroooom!"

More from Dokoupil:

'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." '

Just a note: Safire may be conflating this with the Ken Kesey/Merry Pranksters notion, which we learned about via Tom Wolfe ("The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test") that "you're either on the bus or off the bus" (with the program or not with the program).


My friend Tony Horwitz is blogging about his book tour. Here's the most ominous passage:

'People who have never visited a publishing house imagine a hushed, book-lined shrine to literature, where gentlemen in tweed jackets labor quietly over deathless prose. This may once have been the case, but these days publishing is pretty much like any other business: high-tech and frantic and a place where the talk is less of literature than of price points, sales handles and distribution systems.

'The main difference between publishing and other businesses is that it routinely loses money. That's right--of the tens of thousands of books published each year, 80-90 percent fail to make back the cost of producing them. Not a great business model, which makes me glad (for once) that I'm a 49-year-old veteran hack rather than a 29-year-old rookie just starting out. With luck, writing books will see me out, or at least to my first Social Security check, but I doubt the next generation will be so lucky.'

He's taking comments...


Via fishbowldc , Ana Marie Cox has more WH Correspondents Dinner highlights, as does the NY Observer. Rachel Sklar has gobs of photos (why did I not see any of these people? -- maybe I wasn't really at the WHCD ... maybe I was in the wrong hotel entirely ... ).

Jonathan Alter has a great piece -- factual, furious -- on why suspending the gas tax is a terrible idea and a blatant pander by McCain and Clinton.

By Joel Achenbach  |  April 30, 2008; 2:39 PM ET
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