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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.


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 (

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.

52 comments to Under the bus, to throw

  • chaifilius

    My theory is related, but more abstract: The bus is an overbearing crisis, and throwing someone under it would cause it to crash, or at least slow down enough to escape it. Hence, Libby was thrown under the bus of the Plame scandal, which then came to a screeching halt.

  • CFMitchell

    The phrase bears a strong resemblance to the expression “throw someone to the wolves” which connotes sacrificing a member of one’s own group to a predator in an act of self(ish) defense.

  • Coffee

    Throwing someone under the bus could help the vehicle gain traction in a slippery situation. This picture agrees well with the definition of someone being sacrificed.

  • Kent

    Somewhat like chaifilius’s explanation, my interpretation, culled from contexts of usage I’ve heard, is essentially that one suddenly sees the bus about to hit one oneself; so one quickly reaches for and grabs someone else, nearby, and throws him instead under the bus. I don’t mean that this is the origin of the phrase so much as I mean that this is my view of its present meaning.

  • Sara Davis

    I agree with your opinion of the origin of this saying. I thought it might be related to an incident in Seattle (I was there moments after it happened), where a girl was “thrown under the bus” by her boyfriend/ex-boyfriend. Actually, she was pushed out the door and ended up under it.

  • Jay Schiavone

    I think the notion of “team bus” is significant in that the person being thrown under the bus is invariably close to the people doing the throwing. The scape goat has to be from one’s own side of the issue in order to appease critics. It is hardly possible to throw one’s opponent under the bus, given that betrayal is part and parcel of the process. Is it possible that the origin of the phrase refers to the storage compartment “under the bus” where luggage is usually stored? Probably not. That image would not seem to allow for betrayal or destruction, merely degradation. However, “throw it under the bus,” coming from common usage in a tour or team bus– once it is overheard by someone outside that milieu– could easily become transmuted to the form with which we are now familiar.

  • Craig Gull

    Actually, I do believe that the term actually came from the earliest days of Greyhound where drivers would save themselves embarrasment by tossing contraband under the bus, while acting like they were simply throwing luggage in the storage area.

    Throwing it ‘under the bus’ was a term used for disposing of something that would get you fired if the boss was walking up.

    Many times, the management of Greyhound would send spot checkers from the office out to catch drivers with whiskey flasks or illegal ‘uppers’ or pills while operating the busses.

    The problem was that the spot inspectors would invariably come out from the lighted terminals, which the bus would always face directly at when first arriving.

    Seeing a spot inspector coming out of the building, a fast thinking driver would jump out of the bus, lean down to open a luggage bay while tossing his contraband literally under the bus, and start tossing bags out, or in as the moment called for.

    When the inspector would arrive, the driver would be searched, the bus and luggage bay would be inspected and the driver would get away clean.

    So, in a way… these drivers were forced to toss and old friend (their booze or pills) literally under the bus. Which is what people sometimes do to each other in order to save their skin for the moment.

  • jcp

    The above sound to contrived to me. My theory is a lot less direct but I think more likely. By my memory, it wasn’t uncommon to describe someone as looking like they were “hit by a bus.” I always took this as a natural coinage for a depression or WWII era urban America. An alliterative variant used in “Guys and Dolls” is “Stabbed by a Studebaker.”
    I had heard and used “hit by a bus” often and it never described physical distress, but instead the shocked and frazzled look people get when under emotional strain. For example, you might say a husband looked like he was hit by a bus when he found out his wife ran off with the milkman.
    It is not a big leap to go from being hit by a bus to being thrown in front of or under a bus. Of course being thrown “under” gives the image of the thrower moving forward or advancing without the throwee.

  • John Wilson

    They use this term in theater in Iraq, as in publically blaming someone for something in a meeting.

  • Damon Hobbs

    The bus is mentioned in the book “From Good to Great”. I never read the book but part of the philosophy is that the first priority is not where the bus is going but who is on it. It’s been widely read. Maybe the saying has taken hold for different reasons one of which being because many people in the corporate world have a some exposure to this book and have witnessed co-workers (who might think they are CEO material) trying to stay on the bus at all costs even while throwing other co-workers even friends or former allies underneath.

  • Jon

    I had always just assumed the idea was that needed the bus to stop so he could board it, so he shoved someone else in front of it as an expedient way to bring it to a halt. That was strictly an assumption, though; I never looked into it.

  • Rick

    In a public agency, there are two scenarios I have seen the phrase consistently used for years. One is in reference to a consultant where the unfortunate firm or consultant project manager is sacrificed when the public servant, who is usually to blame for lack of planning or lack of knowing what they need, “throws the consultant under the bus” by deflecting blame on the consultant and thereby coating oneself with teflon. The other common scenario is within the agency’s organization itself where, at levels from the Executive Director to a Manager, to preserve one’s own image and perception of power, another is “thrown under bus” which can range from a public denouncement of another’s views or work, to a dismissal from employment due to another’s power base being threatened, or often the perception of it being threatened. By far the more common is the internal agency scenario. Ref: 30 years career public servant/executive and now 2 years consultant.

  • Gary

    I don’t remember ever hearing the phrase. I remember using it for the first time in 1999. I worked in auto finance for a bank. I bought contracts from car dealers who had a habit of presenting false information on a customer’s form to make the customer look “better”. Things like writing down a 3 year job when it was actually a 3 month job. I told a dealer that doing that kind of thing was like a Boy Scout who was helping the old lady across the street. Half way across he throws her under the bus. In other words, the false application from the car dealer was a lure of goodwill that resulted in bad faith and a credit denial for inaccurate information. I told a dealer “don’t try to throw me under the bus on this one”. I honestly don’t remember the phrase before that although it was probably cooking in my sub conscience somewhere.

  • Laurie Marshall

    I agree with the person who wrote the article. Being thrown under a bus, taken literally, is exactly what the phrase means metaphorically.

  • The first time I heard it was James saying it on Big Brother

  • Larry Lepthien

    This may be a bleedover fron the Trolley Problem –a thought experiment in ethics. See the Fat Man varient.

  • sdwriter

    I first heard it 14 years ago, from a co-worker who was what “Saturday Night Live” producer Lorne Michaels terms an “injustice collector”: one who’s always on the lookout for ways to prove that others have wronged him/her. She was fond of the phrase, as it was an apt description for what she felt her co-workers and supervisor (me) did to her on a regular basis. I have never heard it used in any other context than this, which is reflected in the article (and trust me, working in cubeville, I’ve heard it a lot): sudden betrayal by a teammate or co-worker. The idea of throwing someone under the bus to gain traction, or to cause the bus to stop, adds something to the metaphor that phrases like this typically don’t need, i.e. why are we on a bus? why does it need to stop? why do we need it to get traction? As a metaphor for betrayal, however, it’s quick, concise, and simple to understand.

  • Trackmarks

    I agree with Rick from Feb.2010. Public agencies are rife with those who seek to cover their hind quarters by scapegoating and laying blame at others’ feet. But we have to look no further than the daily news and our political landscape to see that this is a bloodsport enjoyed by many.

  • Rob Hoyt

    I always thought that it came from the idea of bus storage. In the sense that a person whose ideas were not fully in line with the campaign’s could be put, not with the main crew, but with the rest of the luggage – along for the ride, but not “with” us. So, to me it was originally a context of ridding oneself of “excess baggage”, and only later came to be used in that the process of that ridding was to set someone up for scorn, thus being betrayed by their peers.

  • Richard Creagan

    I agree with Larry Lepthien, but as with anything human it would be difficult to prove that was the origin. In the ethics problem you know that by throwing someone under the bus the bus will be stopped and therefore not run over the 50 little kids who are standing in the street. Discover magazine had a scenario that I believe is more common which involves pushing someone in front of a train to stop it. In thee ethics problem you are not benefiting yourself. When I first read it I thought that it was not very nice to make the person you push or throw under the train or bus fat, but if it did not need an incredibly fat person to stop the train you could solve the ethical dilemma by jumping in front of the bus yourself. In “throw him to the wolves” there is usually benefit to the thrower, and the way “throw him under the bus” has come to be used it often implies a benefit to the thrower. Therefore it is quite possible that the saying evolved separately from the ethics problem stories where there is (usually) no benefit to the pusher, and actually potential harm as they are affirmatively killing someone to save others. On a more topical note it is precisely what vaccine manufacturers do: They throw some children “under the bus” or under the train” to save perhaps millions of children. The problem is that there is greed involved as well and denial that vaccines can cause autism when we know that in at least some cases they do.

  • Its a Star Trek reference. In “The City On the Edge of Forever”, Kirk and crew travel back in time, and save a woman from being hit by a city bus. This changes the future in a HORRIBLE way. The episode ends with someone pushing her in front of another bus, throwing her under the bus, for the good of mankind.

  • George

    I heard this (again) on NPR this morning and was curious. After reading through the above, I must say I don’t think it has anything to do with the metaphorical “bus”. The “bus” represents a juggernaut or destructive force which will OBVIOUSLY crush the victim (cause irreparable damage to his reputation). I have actually always pictured this as some unsuspecting person being pushed off the subway platform in front of the oncoming train. (This is a frequent occurence in lore if not in fact.) The keys are 1.) that the victim IS unsuspecting, and 2.) they are a member of a group with a common interest. It is significant but not necessary that they are often “thrown under the bus” to spare someone else a similar fate. It is not done for the greater good, and certainly not to stop the bus nor to give it traction. Also the victim may be, but is usually not, innocent. Why a bus instad of a train? I suspect the train metaphor occurs as well, but could be confused with “thrown FROM the train”, a different implication altogether. Also, “bus” just scans better than “train”.

  • DC

    Crazy Cabbie said it on Howard Stern show.

  • Historian

    I think the phrase probably originated in ancient Rome, where people would “thrown under the chariot.”

  • I think the phrase suggests getting rid of a scapegoat in a way that could look like an accident.

  • Theresa

    It has taken me 5 months to recover from this unpleasant situation. And to make it worse, I saw it coming and ignored the signs. Instead I held on to my faith that no person could be that ugly, but I was wrong. I am staying away from buses period.

  • Steve

    I think of the bus as a reckoning. Either folks get on board to ride it out together, or one or more of them throw someone under the bus. If someone gets run over the trip is cancelled and thrower(s) is spared from a bad ride (blame, punishment). Unsuspecting victim thinks they are about to get on board before a surprise shove into street, or dissenter refuses to get on board and gets chucked under by others.

  • Me

    I just thought it was obvious what it meant. Although, I have in my opinion heard it misused. It’s two things. Sacrificing or blaming someone else (for your own actions) to save yourself

    Telling on someone or betraying a confidence is NOT throwing someone under the bus. Not if it has nothing to do with you gaining or blaming someone for your own actions.

    in other words blaming someone else for something you did. Is in fact Throwing Someone “under the bus”

  • Anonymous

    I really don’t accept as true with this particular article. Even so, I had looked in Google and I have found out you are correct and I seemed to be thinking in the improper way. Keep on producing top quality articles similar to this.

  • Mops

    When I hear this I always think of the Truman Capote story about Miss Bobbitt, “Children on their Birthdays.”

  • Dr. Bones

    Perhaps it goes back to the philosophical problem of savings many lives by sacrificing one.
    There is a thought experiment that goes like this: You see a bus (or trolley or whatever) rolling out of control and about to hit a crowd of people. Would you throw yourself in front of the bus to stop it?

    Next question: you see the same bus rolling toward the same crowd, but your body is not enough to stop it. Another (larger)person is next to you and their body would stop the bus. Would you throw them under the bus to save the crowd?

    An alternate form is that all you have to do is throw a switch and the trolley/bus misses the crowd but kills one other person instead. Either way, the philosophical question is whether or not you would sacrifice the one for the many. (I’m sure Spock would have answer for this)

  • William R. Smith

    Minor league baseball teams frequently travel on the road by bus and stay in cheap hotels. If a new man joins the team and is not welcomed because of a bad attitude or a hot-dog personality, a quick way to have him off the team is to stage an in jury to a foot, ankle or leg…throw him under the bus and the team loses an unwelcome player….and the team prospers…at least for several weeks to recover from the injury,in which time his attitude will often improve.

  • William

    Or it could just mean what it implies.
    There are two possible meanings of being “under the bus”. Where i grew up the phrash was used not used so much as is suggested, but rather to imply that the person or person’s should be made “unavailable” or to be kept from making any more trouble. Being “under the bus” meant to be where the luggage is… secure and safely out of the way. Not the more sinister meaning implying the want of the death of them or their actions.

  • Tony

    Jim Rome has being using this expression on his sports talk radio show for over 15 years.

    So, most likely he picked it up from some sports guys.

    I think the bus is public opinion, day of reckoning, comeuppance … when something bad happens, someone’s got to take the blame, so you can step up yourself and take it, or you can throw Bill Buckner under the bus.

  • Chris

    I believe that the term, to throw someone under the bus works in a metaphor as such:

    The “Bus” being stuck in the mud and the only option to get out is to sacrifice other riders, in order to get out. By throwing them under the bus, they are sacrificed for the gain of the bus to continue on, but at the same time, left behind and unable to continue with the bus.

  • Steve

    I worked at a restaurant called Casa Bonita in Colorado in the mid 80s that was used by tour companies and it was not uncommon to see 10-20 or more bus loads of tourists in a day. From time to time a late tour would call ahead and ask us to keep the restaurant open. Needless to say this did not make night shift employees very happy. In the summer of either 1985 or 1986 a group of employees who regularly met for a beers after work were discussing the practice and decided that keeping the restaurant open for late tours was just like throwing all of the employees under the bus. From that night forward, it was common to hear Casa Bonita employees talk about being “under the bus” or being “thrown under the bus”. Being “Thrown under the bus” had the similar meaning as it does now. Being “under the bus” meant to be behind and struggling to catch up.

  • Dinku Bato

    Inferences as to the origin of this idiom can be made in relation to the Jonah story in the Scriptures who was thrown into the sea to save the ship and the passengers. Hence, “throw someone under the bus” to refer to an instance of someone sacrificed to keep a bus that lost its breaks ((in the old days of mechanical imprecision) and speeding downhill.

  • Tom

    I think maybe the person who mentions Juggernaut might be even closer than they think. Juggernaut is an anglicized word for Jagann?tha the extremely large wheeled car used in Hindu ceremonies. The are a number of apocryphal stories going back centuries of people being sacrificed by being tossed under the Juggernaut. I found a number of references going back to the 1890s of people being “thrown under the Juggernaut of X” Implying their sacrifice to some unstoppable movement. A bus may just be the closest massive wheeled vehicle at hand to a modern western person.

  • Thrown under the bus has a negative conation of discarding and destroying a person for their own selfish reasons.
    But a I think a more ominoushe phrase is thrown under the train. A running train could damage a person worse than a bus.

  • Dave Reed

    I lived in England in the late 1980s and the phrase was in common use there at that time. It’s one of many that has since crossed the Atlantic – e.g., “at the end of the day,” “don’t get your knickers/panties in a twist,” “c.v.,” “DIY,” “one-off,” “to slag (someone) off,” etc.

    • George Garber

      I heard the phrase when I lived in England in 1983 and 1984. I heard it a lot, because it was very popular with my teenage daughter and her friends. To them it meant more or less to rat someone out, or sometimes just to reveal a secret. The idea of betrayal was there, but it was a mild form of betrayal.

      It became a part of my family’s home dialect, and we continued to use it even after returning to America. I was amused when, in the 1990s, it began to appear in American political commentary.

      It makes sense that the phrase started in England and not in America. In much of America, you can wait a long time before seeing a bus.

  • Roger Bullard

    There’s an old Scottish ditty:

    You canna shove your granny off a bus,
    You canna shove your granny off a bus
    You canna shove your granny,
    Because she’s your mammies mammy,
    You canna shove your granny off a bus.

    But I have no idea how old it is or whether it has anything to do with the current usage.

  • Steebo

    The concept is ancient. The phrase has been adapted. This type of action often occurred in warfare. For example, during the Vietnam war, villagers would throw their infants in front of the advancing American vehicles to slow their advance into a village or town. It worked at first, but when the Americans began to suffer losses while trying to avoid killing the children, they were ordered to keep rolling and continue the mission. This phrase has subsequently come to represent the sacrifice of a weak or wounded individual to slow the advance, preoccupy, or change the direction of an opponent while a defense or counter attack is being mounted.

    • admin

      “For example, during the Vietnam war, villagers would throw their infants in front of the advancing American vehicles to slow their advance into a village or town.”

      Would you happen to have a credible citation for this, i.e., something not endorsed by Chuck Norris or the like? Because otherwise it reads like racist tripe.

  • Virginia

    Well I’m sure your never heard this quote before the bus come into existance.

  • Mike

    The first time I ever heard this phrase was on the 2004 VH-1 reality show “The Surreal Life”. Vanilla Ice used the phrase to describe feeling betrayed by his housemates, and his housemates afterwards said in the solo interviews that they had no idea what he meant by the phrase or what bus he was talking about. So I think that must have been right around the cusp of when the phrase was entering common usage.

  • James

    I agree with Steebo. I was in Viet Nam in 1971 and although I never saw it, I heard about women in villages throwing newborns under US tanks and buses to get insurance money. I remember the amount being around $500.00, but it could have been more. $500 would have been an amazing amount of money to someone living under such conditions at that time. So I believe that’s where the saying came from.

  • Est-il possible de vous emprunter certaines phrases sur mon site ?

  • Chris W

    Wouldn’t it be better phrased to say, “Push in front of the bus?” I sometimes get this picture of someone being stowed away in the luggage containter, which is…under the bus.

  • james carter

    When I first heard this expression was from the TV and print media. At that I compared it to the literal meaning. And then I decided that throw some under bus was a negative term. As a city dweller, I know you intend to hurt someone physically.
    Later learned the figure of speech term means remove the blame of something bad, and cast the blame on someone else.

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