Who's to Blame for 'Under the Bus'?

From the tar pits of the blogosphere to the peaks of the mainstream media, one strange phrase has bubbled up in the wake of Sen. Barack Obama's sweeping speech on race in America: "He didn't throw him under the bus." The "him" is, of course, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright Jr., Obama's former pastor, whose angry and racially charged sermons have sparked controversy that could undercut Obama's presidential candidacy. 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. 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."

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 same plagiaristic habit is on display in the film "The Big Lebowski," where characters repeat lines scene to scene. (The Dude, for example, says "ya know, this aggression will not stand, man," after he hears the first President Bush use it on television.) 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 ("Maybe it was rockers. Maybe it was baseball. The fact is these things tend to grow etymologies after the fact," he says.) Neither Nunberg nor Safire think the phrase harkens back to Rosa Parks or the Montgomery bus boycotts of 1955, when African-Americans protested the law that forced them to sit in the "back of the bus." Good to know. 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.