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Black Box

The known unknown.

Dear Word Detective: As I write, there is a lot on the news about a plane landing rather short of the runway at Heathrow in London, fortunately without any serious injuries to anyone. Pundits of various kinds are speculating about what the “black box” flight recorders will reveal. On the back of that, people are ruminating about where the phrase “black box” came from, as they are bright orange and have never been black, so far as anyone knows. Explanations so far seem to be a bit short of the target, as was the plane. — David, Ripon, England.

Well, it’s good to hear that no one was seriously hurt. But I’m still not getting on any airplanes. I actually haven’t been on a plane since 1994, and nothing I’ve heard about air travel in the years since then has made me eager to have my shoes searched. If I’m going to be treated like a criminal, I’d like it to be for doing something fun, not for flying to Newark.

If one were to conduct a survey among a large group of people, it’s likely that most of them would associate “black box” with the device you speak of, also (and more properly) known as a “flight recorder.” These devices, found on every large aircraft, monitor and record a wide variety of information about the course of the aircraft’s journey, including the craft’s altitude, speed and heading, as well as the functioning of the hundreds of mechanical and electrical systems that keep the thing aloft. The “black box” only becomes important, of course, if something goes wrong, and the devices are built to withstand the heat and impact of a crash so that the cause of the mishap can, with luck, be identified. But, as you say, the “black boxes” are routinely painted bright orange so they can be more easily found at a crash site. So why “black box”?

The reason is that the “black” in “black box” doesn’t really refer to the color of the device, but to the aura of mystery associated with it. The first known use of the term in print was back in the 17th century, when “black box” was used to mean “coffin” (“She had been in the black Box (meaning the Coffin) e’re now,” 1674). The “black” in that instance referred not to the color of the coffin, but to the “blackness” inside, both the darkness and the mystery of death itself. That aspect of “mystery” is central to “black box.” The first use of the term in regard to aircraft was in the Royal Air Force during World War II, when “black box” became airman’s slang for the mysterious boxes (actually navigational equipment) mounted in their planes. No one in the crew understood how the gizmos did what they did — they just did it without any action on the part of the crew.

The term “black box” has since come to mean any device or process whose purpose or effect is clear to the user, but whose actual means of operation are a mystery. Television sets, for instance, are “black boxes” to most consumers (that “no user-serviceable parts inside” sticker on the back drives home the point). Despite advances in neuropsychology, the human brain remains, in large part, a “black box.” And the US electoral system, quite apart from the question of electronic voting machines, remains a “black box” to many voters (not to mention, every so often, a “Pandora’s box”).

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.

Vent one’s spleen

Operators are standing by, polishing their revolvers.

Dear Word Detective: I’m sitting in a “Communicating with tact and finesse” conference and our hyper-talkative instructor is regaling us with stories of her forty years of professional life. Several times during the two-day training, she described an emotional outpouring as “venting my spleen.” I’ve heard of someone “spilling their guts,” but never venting their spleen. I’m not sure if this helps, but in 1968 she worked as an operator for the very first 1-800 number in the United States, and she’s from Kansas. — Jeff.

spleen08.pngSo in 1968, while the rest of us were perfecting our tie-dyeing skills and forging new frontiers in backyard agriculture, this poor person was chained to a switchboard answering questions about hearing aids and the like? In Kansas? No wonder she has anger issues. I am, by the way, very proud that, in my many years of working in an office, I managed to avoid every single “motivational” training course my bosses came up with. Eventually management gave up on me (obviously indicating a lack of motivation on their part).

“To vent one’s spleen” means “to express one’s anger,” usually in forceful terms and/or at top volume. “Venting one’s spleen” differs from “spilling one’s guts,” which means simply “to divulge a secret, to tell the whole truth” or “to confess.”

The spleen is, of course, one of those brave little organs nestled in the human midsection (just east of the stomach, in this case), performing those thankless tasks we don’t notice until something goes wrong and our deductible becomes relevant. The spleen’s job is to act as a sort of filter for the blood, but in medieval times, when each bodily organ was thought to be the home of one emotion or another, the spleen was regarded as the seat of melancholy (a mood we now know to reside in the wallet). There was apparently a brief period later on when the spleen was suspected, improbably, of supplying humor and good cheer, but by the late 16th century it was decided that the spleen was the source of rage and ill-temper. Thus “spleen” has for several centuries been a metaphor for “anger,” “resentment” and general crankiness.

“Vent” comes ultimately from the Latin “ventus,” meaning “wind,” and as a verb means “to emit or discharge from a confined space,” as a fan “vents” cooking fumes from a kitchen. The “vent” in “vent one’s spleen” is a metaphorical use of the verb that arose in the 17th century meaning “to relieve or unburden one’s heart or soul,” a sense we still use today (“Don’t mind me, I’m just venting”).