This idiom means to cause another person suffering in order to save oneself or gain personal advantage. It means the brutal sacrifice of a loyal teammate for often small or minor advantage. It offers a violent image of callously disposing of someone.
The phrase can be replaced by using the terms betrayal, double-crossing, duping, bamboozling, hanging out to dry or selling out, to name just a few. Another synonym that comes to mind is scapegoating.
The earliest known usage of this phrase was in June 1982, when Julian Critchley of The Times (London) wrote, “President Galtieri had pushed her under the bus, which the gossips had said was the only means of her removal.”
Since 2004, the phrase has been made popular by sports journalists and was picked up by the mainstream media during the 2008 political primary season. It has often been used to describe the actions of various politicians distancing themselves from suddenly unpopular or controversial figures with whom they had previously allied themselves.
In The Washington Post in 1984, journalist David Remnick wrote an article about Cyndi Lauper, in which he said, “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.”
The exact origin of “thrown under the bus” is not known. William Safire, in his New York Times magazine column, quotes slang expert Paul Dickson, who 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 creates a vivid image of someone being pushed in front of a moving bus and the resultant blood-spattered mess. It would be an efficient but coldly brutal way of getting rid of someone and I’m not surprised it’s being applied to political scenes.
I’d prefer less violence. Instead of a bus, how about a balloon-tired tricycle?