long ago, i asked a deeply penetrating sociological question: who are we throwing under the bus? implicit, i hope, in this profoundly fascinating inquiry, was the larger question of, “where did this wildly overused and increasingly meaningless phrase originate?” well, now it seems like newsweek has joined this critically important crusade with an inquiry of their own. so if you said the answer is cyndi lauper, well then you win.
In the last few years, “thrown under the bus” has become the leading cliché of the political blame game. Former Arkansas attorney general Bud Cummins used it to assess the fate of nine colleagues who were mysteriously dismissed in 2006; rocker Melissa Etheridge used it last year to characterize the lives of gays and lesbians after the 1992 presidential election, and earlier this year MSNBC political reporter David Schuster claimed he was “thrown under the bus” for an uncouth on-air remark he made about Chelsea Clinton.
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. That’s why it might have been on the tip of everyone’s tongue this week. Jeremiah Wright was Obama’s religious mentor, after all, the person who officiated at his marriage and baptized his kids. And while Obama distanced himself from Wright’s sermons, he also humanized the fiery preacher by attributing his remarks to the lingering injuries of racism. In other words, according CNN’s senior political analyst David Gergen: “He didn’t throw him under the bus.”
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.”