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Under the bus, to throw

Cross at the green, not in betw…

Dear Word Detective: What is the origin of the phrase “to throw one under the bus”? — Brenda Varney.

bus08.png

Good question, and, it would seem, a timely one as well. It’s hard to pick up a newspaper or turn on the TV these days without hearing of someone being “thrown under the bus.” Last year CNN’s Jack Cafferty declared that “Rather than face Senate confirmation hearings over his reappointment as the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the Bush White House has decided to simply throw General Peter Pace under the bus.” Elsewhere, the E-Commerce News warned that a new song royalty scheme would “… throw large webcasters under the bus and put an end to small webcasters’ hopes of one day becoming big.” And a letter to the New York Times cautioned the paper not to “throw doctors under the bus … as the cause of health care costs.”

“To throw someone under the bus” is defined as meaning “to sacrifice; to treat as a scapegoat; to betray,” but I think the key to the phrase really lies in the element of utter betrayal, the sudden, brutal sacrifice of a stalwart and loyal teammate for a temporary and often minor advantage. There is no retirement dinner, no gold watch, for poor schmuck “thrown under the bus.” On the contrary, the scapegoat’s name is liable to disappear from the website overnight.

The earliest solid example of “throw under the bus” found in print so far is from 1991, although a 1984 quote from rock star Cyndi Lauper where she uses the phrase “under the bus” (without “throw”) may or may not count as a sighting. Incidentally, by far the best compilation of citations for the phrase can be found, as usual, at Grant Barrett’s Double-Tongued Dictionary website (www.doubletongued.org).

The exact origin of “thrown under the bus” is, unfortunately, a mystery. Slang expert Paul Dickson, quoted by William Safire in his New York Times magazine column, traces it to sports, specifically the standard announcement by managers trying to get the players to board the team bus: “Bus leaving. Be on it or under it.” The phrase does seem to be popular in sports circles, but few of the citations I have seen from sports publications carry the same overtones of casual, callous betrayal that one finds in non-sporting uses.

Consequently, I have my own theory. I don’t think the “bus” was ever the team bus. As someone who spent a lot of time standing on Manhattan street corners and narrowly avoided being expunged by speeding city buses on several occasions, to me the phrase conjures up the classic urban nightmare of being pushed in front of a bus. As a way to quickly and irreversibly get rid of someone, “throwing” them under a bus in this sense would be the ideal solution and would satisfy the connotations of sudden, cold brutality the phrase usually carries. So I suspect that the phrase has urban origins, and migrated into sports world via players from big cities.

Greyhound

You ain’t nothin’ but a hound hound?

Dear Word Detective: In Chapter 10 of P. G. Wodehouse’s “The Butler Did It,” he noted that greyhounds are so called because “grey” is an old English word for “badger,” and the these hounds were used in hunting badgers. I have not checked the OED to verify this, but it is different from what I found in one of your columns. Maybe you can prove or disprove his claim? — Anna Tetreau.

Badgers? Badgers? I don’t need to talk about no stinking badgers! Sorry. I’m required by the columnist’s oath to invoke The Treasure of the Sierra Madre whenever badgers are mentioned. It’s a chore in print, but it’s even worse when it happens in a restaurant.

So, Sir Pelham Grenville Wodehouse differed with my explanation of “greyhound,” did he? That’s a shame, because I’m a big fan of Mr. Wodehouse. It took me a while; for years I scoffed at the idea of reading, as I imagined his work, “books about a rich twit and his butler.” But I finally heeded the advice of a friend (who had also convinced me to start watching The Simpsons) and ended up reading perhaps a third of everything Wodehouse wrote (and he wrote 96 books). His stories are hilarious and truly addictive.

So, to recap my original answer (from around 1996) for the benefit of those readers who missed it: The “grey” [in greyhound] isn’t a color: it’s the remnant of the Old Norse word “grig,” meaning “female dog.” Of course, not all greyhounds are female; otherwise there would be remarkably few greyhounds around to discuss. If the redundancy and illogic of the root meaning “female dog hound” seems odd, it’s just more evidence that the English language evolved, rather than being invented.

Mr. Wodehouse’s theory about “greyhound” being rooted in “grey” as an Old English word for “badger” is, although not correct (there’s pretty conclusive linguistic evidence for the Old Norse source), entirely defensible. “Grey” was indeed used a mean “badger” from the early 15th century onward, based on the color of the animal. In fact, “grey” was specifically used to mean “grey fur,” usually in reference to badger skins, which were a valuable commodity at the time. Add to that the fact that greyhounds were introduced to England as hunting dogs (because of their keen eyesight and speed), and P.G. Wodehouse’s theory seems even more reasonable. In fact (and this is not an uncommon phenomenon), the existence of “grey” meaning “badger” may well have contributed to the persistence of the name “greyhound” in English. So ol’ P.G. was about as right as it is possible to be and still be wrong.