Tom McLaughlin

A former history teacher, Tom is a columnist who lives in Lovell, Maine. His column is published in Maine and New Hampshire newspapers and on numerous web sites. Email:

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Like Whatever

The expression “thrown under the bus” puzzles me. It’s understood to mean putting blame on someone else for something you might have been responsible for, but how did it originate? I’ve been hearing it for years and it irks me. It was a cliche in 2008 when David Segal wrote in the Washington Post “Hardly a week goes by without someone reviving the cliche of the 2008 campaign -- that a former ally of a candidate has been thrown under a bus.”People knew what it meant, but no one I asked could tell me where it came from. Wikipedia offers this: “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.” I have trouble with this explanation because Harry pushed Monk in front of a bus, which is different from throwing him under it. Also, the act seems like pure selfishness. There’s no blame put on Monk; he’s a victim of assault.Charles Bukowski

What bugs me about it, I guess, is that people use it because it’s shallow and trendy. What’s wrong with “thrown to the wolves” or “made a scapegoat”? Those phrases mean the same thing and each has a history. Each can be visualized. People have been thrown to the wolves, and according to “scapegoat” originated with “a goat let loose in the wilderness on Yom Kippur after the high priest symbolically laid the sins of the people on its head. Lev. 16:8,10,26.” Has anyone ever been thrown under a bus? No. So let’s all stop saying it okay?Words and phrases become faddish as if they were clothing or hairstyles. Stephanie Rosenbloom wrote a piece in The New York Times last week, for example, about overuse of the word “authentic.” As an example, she quoted Anderson Cooper’s comments about his new show: “In everything I’ve done, I’ve always tried to just be authentic and real.”

That's oxymoronic. We don't try to be authentic. If you have to try, you failed. If you have to tell people you’re authentic, you probably aren’t. The best we can say about Cooper’s comments is that he’s tempted to be phony and is struggling to resist.

Also quoted by Rosenbloom was Naomi S. Baron, author of “Always On: Language in an Online and Mobile World.” Baron says the word “awesome” is so overused it has become devoid of meaning: “Technically it should be used to describe an awe-inspiring sight like the fjords in Norway, but these days ‘awesome’ is a perfectly acceptable response to something as mundane as ‘I can meet you for lunch at noon.’”

Almost every day I hear about how someone has “signed off on” something or other. Growing up, I’d hear a radio or TV personality say he was “signing off” as his program was ending. I’d hear friends say they’d “signed on” to a four-year hitch in the Marines. So, to say one has “signed off on” something seems confusing at least if not contradictory. Let’s avoid it and just say approved or endorsed okay?

And then there’s “moving forward.” That’s tiresome too. At dull meetings, it’s used either at the beginning or at the end of proposals for change, like: “Moving forward, we’re going to do it this way,” or “This is the protocol moving forward” - as if any other method would be moving backward. Sometimes it’s just a filler, like “ahh” or a prolonged “aannnnndd . . . ” all of which which President Obama uses when he’s forced to speak without his teleprompter and needs time to figure out what he’s going to say next. I hear “moving forward” most often from people who call themselves “progressive,” as if a different perspective must be regressive.

“Have this conversation” is another tiresome phrase, as in “He and I are going to have this conversation.” If you have a script for how a conversation is going to go, it’s not really a conversation is it? To converse requires give and take, a sharing of ideas to see what emerges. Saying you’re going to have a conversation is a veiled threat, a weak attempt to talk tough. If a boss has to give instructions, he or she should just deliver them directly and avoid the pretense of being open to alternatives.

One of the benefits of being a retired public school teacher is that I haven’t heard anyone say “Whatever!” or “I’m like, ‘Oh my God’!” or “I’m like, so ‘Oh my God’!” for almost three months now.

And that’s been nice.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

"At the end of the day," you make some good points!

9/14/11, 9:51 AM  
Anonymous Texas Transplant said...

Tom: Bless you for commenting about the mis-use of our native language, and giving examples of better and more acceptable ways of expressing ourselves...

9/14/11, 9:57 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I 'could write a book', on the abuse and misuse of the Great American Language. Although I 'could not agree with you more' you are 'beating a dead horse.'
Thanks for allowing me 'speak my mind'.

The enemy is still us.

9/14/11, 11:05 AM  
Anonymous Nathan said...

You'd probably be interested in the list of Banished Words published each New Year's Day by Lake Superior State University. Its contents are words and phrases that over the past year have become overused, incorrectly used, or just plain dumb, and therefore should not be used anymore. You'll be happy to learn that "under the bus" appeared on the list in 2008.

9/14/11, 11:13 AM  
Blogger Average American said...

Hey "Dude", as correct as you are, you missed the worst one of all.

"Whatever", have a nice day!

9/14/11, 3:58 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

You forgot 'just sayin,' which I hear constantly lately!

9/15/11, 9:20 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

As a 61 year old, I have to say that we go through stages throughout the decades of our lives when it comes to phrases or words that we overuse. I remember way back in the late 60's in high school we used "bitchen" for something that was way cool in California. But, we didn't use it in front of our parents. In fact the word "neat" was overused into way into the 70's, and by the 80's it was so not cool to say it. And listen to me, still using the word "cool", and it has been around since the 50's! :)

9/15/11, 11:25 PM  
Anonymous Rhonda said...

I just left a note that began with "I'm a 61 year old", and I meant to sign it with my name. I did not mean to sign it with "Anonymous". Let me try this again, as I am not afraid to sign my name to my opinions. :)

9/15/11, 11:29 PM  
Anonymous DAWN said...

my very Southern boss says "cool beans" all the time. Never heard that one when I lived in New England.

9/21/11, 4:15 PM  

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