Wednesday, June 24, 2015

"Do you mean to throw a level playing field under the bus?"

In an impassioned argument against the proposal for a Hugo for "Sagas", a professional SF writer writes:

"Do you mean to throw a level playing field under the bus?"

I don't know whether that fantastic image makes me more likely to buy their work or less.

I've been thinking about the phrase to throw someone under the bus recently, as it was used approximately 16,993 times in the discussions about publisher Tor's open letter disavowing Irene Gallo's Facebook comment, which, since it referred to her by name, was widely considered to be throwing her under the bus.

To throw (someone) under the bus is an idiomatic phrase in American English meaning to sacrifice a friend or ally for selfish reasons. It is typically used to describe a self-defensive disavowal and severance of a previously-friendly relationship when the relation becomes controversial or unpopular. (Wikipedia)
But what bus? Does it refer to the enemy's bus, in order to slow it down, or provide a sacrifice for it? Or does it refer to our own bus, and if so, why would we want to throw one of our own under it?

It turns out nobody knows. It's quite a new phrase, apparently coming to prominence in politics in 2008, and probably not more than 20 years older than its first citation.

The first times that phrases like it were used, they were more of the form "it's better to tour in the bus than under the bus", a reference, I think, to travelling with the rock stars (or sports stars) on the bus versus travelling in the luggage compartment under the bus.  Cyndi Lauper's name often comes up with this non-thrown usage.

When it comes to being thrown under, rather than just being under, the bus, it's even more modern and the range of possible origins is huge. Is it a reference to being sacrificed to a juggernaut as opposed to making the sacrifice yourself? Is it true that Vietnamese women used to throw newborn babies under a bus in order to collect insurance payments from Americans? (Ecch. I hope not.)  Does it owe its origin to a debate in the New Zealand parliament, where it was discussed how to provide for someone's dependents should they fall under a bus? Is it really from The Trolley Problem, where a psychological subject is told that a trolley is on a track that will kill an entire family, and is asked if he would be prepared to throw a diversion lever that would save the family by sending the trolley down a different track where it would kill a single person?

Or was it all from a Charles Bukowski book?:

In Septuagenarian Stew (The Life of a Bum), published in 1990, the Charles Bukowski character Harry pushed his friend Monk in front of a bus, and then stole Monk's wallet while Monk lay unconscious and probably dying in the street. After taking the wallet, Harry went directly to a bar and, using Monk's money, bought himself two double whiskeys. Later, Harry went to the Groton Steak House and, again using Monk's money, bought two beers and two Porterhouse steaks with fries ("go easy on the grease"). (Explanation by Thursagen.)

I don't know. But I love the phrase "Do you mean to throw a level playing field under the bus?"

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