The Grammarphobia Blog

She’s so unusual

Q: On a recent radio show, you discussed “thrown under the bus.” I first heard it on “Top Chef.” It’s used on almost every episode to mean telling the judges something negative about a competitor to better one’s chances of winning.

A: Thanks for sharing the information about “thrown under the bus,” but the expression has been around a lot longer than the reality show “Top Chef,” which began airing on the Bravo cable network in 2006.

The slang lexicographer Grant Barrett has collected published references for various versions of the expression dating back to 1984. The first citation listed on his website, the Double-Tongued Dictionary, is from Cyndi Lauper.

In a Sept. 7, 1984, article in the Washington Post, she’s quoted as saying: “In the rock ’n’ roll business, you are either on the bus or under it. Playing ‘Feelings’ with Eddie and the Condos in a buffet bar in Butte is under the bus. Peter Frampton is under the bus. God willing, so are the Bee Gees.”

Barrett’s first citation for the full expression (with “thrown” thrown in) is from a Dec. 12, 1991, article in the Colorado Springs Gazette Telegraph: “Dees said he talked to Hood after he bonded out of the El Paso County Criminal Justice Center on Sept. 26, 1990, and warned him ‘that he was being thrown under the bus by Jennifer Reali.’ But he said Hood believed Reali ‘was going to tell the truth.’ ”

The ultimate origin of the expression, which means to sacrifice or betray or treat like a scapegoat, is uncertain

The language maven and baseball guru Paul Dickson (quoted by William Safire in the New York Times) has suggested that it might come from minor-league baseball, where players are told, “The bus is leaving, get on it or under it.”

But Evan Morris, on his Word Detective website, speculates that the phrase may have its origin in “the classic urban nightmare” of being pushed in front of a bus.

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