The Write Stuff
Under the Bus
By Alan Crawford,
It’s been three years since Nicholas von Hoffman died, and the Nick von Hoffman-size hole in the punditry universe has yet to close. Four decades have passed since he wrote his regular column for The Washington Post, but I still think of him whenever I read or hear that someone is about to be “thrown under the bus.” There’s a place in journalism for figurative language of this kind, but “thrown under the bus,” while figurative, has long since failed to fulfill the function of figurative language.
Figurative language, as Quora puts it, “refers to the color we use to amplify our writing. It takes an ordinary statement and dresses it up in an evocative frock. It gently alludes to something without directly stating it. Figurative language is a way to engage your readers, ushering them through your writing with a more creative tone.”
To throw someone under the bus might have been fresh when it was first written, but it stinks today. It was decided on NPR’s All Things Considered that the phrase appears to have entered our vocabularies in a Financial Times story in 1980 but appeared in more than 400 stories during the 2008 presidential campaign. But my own Google news search — conducted with scientific, even robust rigor in mid-December — turned up some form of the phrase in 3,400,000 articles.
I think that’s about precisely 3,400,000 too many. It even has its own hashtag, #underbus, for people who want to subject themselves to even more examples of this tired expression.
It doesn’t color, amplify or dress up a thought in an evocative frock. And because it is trotted out so thoughtlessly, it tells me that whoever is writing or saying it isn’t bothering to employ their dendrites at all.
Nick von Hoffman would never have said someone was thrown under a bus, even if he saw it happen in front of his old DuPont townhouse. Those of us who remember him recall what he said about Richard Nixon during the Watergate uproar. Back when he was a regular on CBS’ 60 Minutes, von Hoffman said the soon-to-be-forced-from-office president was a “dead mouse on the American family kitchen floor, and the question is: who is going to pick it up by the tail and throw it in the trash.”
The utterance got him fired, but those of us who weren’t cashing his paychecks still think it was worth it.
ANNOYING WORD OF THE MONTH: Relationship. A few years ago, Leslie Savan observed in her Village Voice column that the frantic frequency with which we talk about something is a reflection of its disappearance in the culture. Savan was referring to how often we hear about some “community,” but it might apply today to “relationship.” Twenty years ago, brands were encouraged to do more than sell an item; the trick to enduring over time was to develop a relationship with the customer. We’re seeing the results today, and they’re not always pleasant.
We are now deluged with messages from the sellers until we can’t get away from them. It’s a lame attempt, it would seem, to engage us in endless “conversation.” You can’t make an appointment for a haircut without being besieged with reminders, and then asked, once the hairdo is done, to rate the stylist. This is what, in this age, constitutes a relationship, and it allows brands to amass information, but is that what any of us want, really? Let’s be honest. Nobody likes it when someone tells them, “We need to talk about our relationship.”
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Contact Alan Crawford, editor of Impact