Word Matters Podcast

Is it a '180' or a '360'?

Word Matters, Episode 20

word matters podcast logo

We start this week in the rough-and-tumble world of politics (yikes!) with an analysis of the phrase "throw someone under a bus." Where's it from? And why a bus? Then, we go to the world of math (double yikes!) to see if there's a linguistic difference between pulling a 180 and pulling a 360.

Download the episode here.


Ammon Shea: We get our phrases and idioms from a lot of different sources in English. And they tend to just arise up out of comfort, out of familiarity, out of things that we're just used to seeing.

Peter Sokolowski: So many of our idioms like this do not in fact have literal application at first.

Emily Brewster: Coming up on Word Matters: the phrase "throw someone under the bus" and the difference between doing a 180 and doing a 360. I'm Emily Brewster and Word Matters is produced by Merriam-Webster in collaboration with New England Public Media. On each episode, Merriam-Webster editors, Neil Serven, Ammon Shea, Peter Sokolowski and I explore some aspect of the English language from the dictionary's vantage point.

Throwing someone under the bus is about criticizing, blaming or punishing someone, especially when you're trying to avoid blame or gain an advantage. The phrase evokes quite an image, but where did it come from anyway and why a bus? Here's Ammon Shea on the development of this unsavory, but often applied, idiom.

Ammon Shea: One of the peculiarities of English language is that words and idioms very often we are presented with colorful explanations of where they came from. And typically, it's kind of a rule that if somebody gives you an etymology, the origin story of a word and it sounds really interesting, it's almost certainly not true. All the things about posh meaning, "port outward," or whatever the hell it is ...

Neil Serven: "Port outward, starboard home" I believe is the explanation.

Ammon Shea: Right. They just don't hold water, so to speak. And every once in a while, though, you do get one that does have an interesting origin story. One of my favorites in a grisly way is deadline and our earliest evidence for this is from diaries of prisoners in the Civil War and they refer to the deadline as in a prison camp, the line past which if you walked you wouldn't be shot. You go past that line, you are dead. And there's a Robert Ransom diary entry from 1863. "The ditch serves as a deadline and no prisoners must go near the ditch." And it's a very clear literal meaning to deadline. And it's charming in an unfortunate way, but it's nice that sometimes-

Neil Serven: It's a weird term for journalists and others to pick up. They need to get a job done. Let's immediately go to the prison yard.

Ammon Shea: Right, it's a little overly dramatic, isn't it?

Emily Brewster: It tells you how heavily those deadlines can weigh on a person.

Neil Serven: Right, they don't want to get shot.

Ammon Shea: But then we have other ones like another great one, an idiom is throw someone under the bus, which has become very popular in politics lately. And it's been around for several decades, but really in the last 10 or 12 years. Throwing someone under the bus, which is making somebody takes the fall for you so to speak. Now, the origins originally was there an ur-person who was in fact squished under a bus, fortunately that's not the case. It would make for a really great story if it were, but the evidence that we have the term, oddly enough, since it becomes so popular in our political system and our political coverage of late, our earliest uses all come from British politicians beginning in about 1980. Some still pin their hopes on the under the bus theory, which has Mr. Foot being forced by ill health to give way to Mr. Healy before the next election.

Neil Serven: When was that?

Ammon Shea: That was in 1980.

Emily Brewster: That's pretty recent.

Ammon Shea: It is pretty recent. The British seem to have a real affinity for the bus in idiom because somewhat earlier in 1971, there was a quote from The Spectator, a London newspaper: "There was an amusing little parlor game, much favored by politicians and is called "Let's kill the Leader" and when played by Labor loyalists, it begins supposing Harold Wilson were to go under a bus." And there are other uses in the 1970s: "The two would be the top contenders for the leadership of Prime minister Jim Callaghan were, in the British phrase, to fall under a bus." So we have go under a bus, fall under a bus, et cetera, et cetera.

Emily Brewster: And as far as images of England, I often think of, especially London, I picture the buses right?. The buses are an arc type little symbol-

Neil Serven: The red double-decker buses.

Emily Brewster: They are a symbol

Ammon Shea: And the politicians shoving people under them. Exactly.

Peter Sokolowski: There is a kind of violence to the image. This has become lexicalized to such a point that when I hear under the bus, he threw them under the bus, I don't actually think of the literal image and it is pretty alarming.

Ammon Shea: It would be a really kind of messy literalism and it's interesting because so many of our idioms like this do not in fact have literal application at first. Dog days of summer is perhaps one of the best known examples that it has nothing to do with an actual furry dog. It refers to the dog star, right? Kiss of death, which is an interesting one. You know, that something signifying the demise of something about the com is I believe in 19th century origin, but isn't referenced the Bible, the Judas giving the kiss to Jesus, et cetera. So these phrases tend to not have the deadline realism to their origin.

Neil Serven: What is interesting about throw under the bus? A lot of these phrases, the kiss of death comes from the Bible. You can actually trace it back pretty far. Throw someone under the bus, you're limited, from the beginning to the time when there were such a thing as motor coaches.

Ammon Shea: Right? There's no earlier use of throw someone under the oxcart.

Neil Serven: Right? So it's kind of interesting how this came up with the imagery of buses, obviously at a time when they could maybe go with some speed because that's the whole point of throwing someone under them that they would be hurt. The image obviously sticks with you of someone being trampled by a bus.

Emily Brewster: Peter was saying that he doesn't even think of that image.

Peter Sokolowski: No. I don't. I understand its been lexicalized for me.

Neil Serven: It sticks with me. I don't know why. I don't know if it has to do with maybe it was the double-decker buses? Why a bus and why not an oxcart? Why not a train? Why did bus stick around as the idea of that thing coming over? Maybe it was because at the time the phrase was coined very common. Maybe it was a city thing. I don't know.

Ammon Shea: I think that's possible. I think people were in fact often run over by buses as well. And I think you don't say run over by a sled. You go to what you know, which is people in fact get run over by buses sometimes.

Emily Brewster: Ammon do you know if there's any evidence of people being thrown under an omnibus?

Ammon Shea: Not that I've seen.

Emily Brewster: Because omnibus is where we get the word bus.

Peter Sokolowski: Nobody corrects one to say no, that's properly throw one under the omnibus.

Emily Brewster: I think that's happened in Congress before though. Hasn't it. You are listening to Word Matters. I'm Emily Brewster. We'll be back after the break with a detour to where idiom confronts geometry. Word Matters is produced by Merriam-Webster in collaboration with New England Public Media.

Peter Sokolowski: I'm Peter Sokolowski. Join me every day for the word of the day. A brief look at the history and definition of one word available at Merriam-Webster.com or wherever you get your podcasts. And for more podcasts from New England Public Media, visit the NEPM podcast hub@nepm.org.

Neil Serven: I'm Neil Serven. Do you have a question about the origin, history, or meaning of a word? Email us at wordmatters@m-w.com.

Emily Brewster: This podcast is called Word Matters, not Number Matters, but sometimes numbers get used as words in which case those number matters are indeed word matters. And so it is with two numbers that are used to talk about changing direction. Or, ultimately, not. Here's Neil Serven with the linguistic difference between doing a 180 and doing a 360.

Neil Serven: We had our phrases and idioms from a lot of different sources in English, and they tend to just arise up out of comfort, out of familiarity, out of things that we're just used to seeing. One example of an idiom that comes from mathematics and geometry is to do a 180. So to explain the geometrical aspect of this first, there are 360 degrees in a circle, 180 degrees in a half a circle. Angles are measured by degrees, so we have 90 degree in our right angle. It's like one quarter of the circle is a 90 degree angle so a half circle essentially is 180 degrees. People have visualized the circle when they talk about doing a 180. What it essentially means is they've turned around halfway. You're doing an about face, essentially. You're looking the other way that you were facing before.

Emily Brewster: You're now going in the opposite direction.

Neil Serven: The opposite direction. So we use these degrees when we're talking about like snowboarders doing stunts. They'll do a 180. That's actually not that impressive. You can do 720 and that's two full rotations. We talk about hinges. We talk about inclines. We talk about basketball dunks doing the rotation as they go up to the rim. When you complete a full rotation, that is 360 degree. Then facing the same way that you started compared to the 180, which we are facing the reverse. Idiomatically, we've come to use do a 180 to mean "do an about-face" and "do an about-face" has its own idiom in English, it means "to change course." To do something that is essentially the opposite of what you were doing before. There's an example from G. Gordon Liddy's autobiography from 1980: "I put the Pinto into a high-speed four-wheel drift across traffic and up into a dirt road, leading into a cemetery, then did a 180 to see what was coming after me the other way." So it's obvious, he's talking about changing his direction. The car spun around. He is now facing the way he was facing before. So when we talk about figurative 180s, we talk about changes in policy, changes in idea, that is vastly different, almost completely the opposite of what was happening before..

We have an example from Mike Pompeo quoted in New York Magazine: "The Iranian regime has a choice. It can either do a 180 degree turn from its outlaw course of action and act like a normal country,` or it can see its economy crumble." The use of geometry here allows us to visualize things a little easier because we can see what circles look like. We see what shapes look like. When we say to do a 360 course, we're talking to do a complete rotation. Idiomatically, if we say we're doing a 360, we're not changing anything, but there is a habit that people have in English when they want to kind of enhance their language. And so what happens sometimes is people will use do a 360 to mean to do a 180.

Ammon Shea: More is better.

Neil Serven: More is better. They're trying to double the idea of doing a 180 thinking it's going to somehow sound more impressive, but the problem is, the result of doing a 60 means you're still where you are.

Emily Brewster: The fact is that ninth grade geometry is a long way in the past for many speakers of English. But yes it is based on this shape and the number of degrees in a circle. But that's not something that is really present in the minds of many speakers. You know, it's an idiom, you can make it be whatever you want to be.

Ammon Shea: What's interesting about that is in the evidence I've come across for this early use. And this is typical. It comes up in spoken language first. And of course we have very little record of spoken language from decades ago. So what you sometimes see is in this case, there's an article in the Chicago Tribune in 1975 in which a soap opera star is quoted, so it's the closest thing we get to actual colloquial speech, and she says "with a growing audience, viewers get to know the character. You can do a 360 degree switch if it's logical." And she's using "360 degree switch" to mean a dramatic transformation when it actually, it just means she's spinning in a circle. But again, this is spoken English rather than written English.

Emily Brewster: I watched a little soap operas back in the day. So I like to imagine this character going from being a person who is having an affair with this person and then goes and does something else and has other relationships and then comes back and is back with that same first person again. And that, that would be a 360.

Peter Sokolowski: Language isn't math. I mean, that's Neil's point, right? Is that we can't apply the rules of math to emphasis in language.

Emily Brewster: And also a little knowledge can be dangerous. Dangerous only if there is actual danger in misusing an idiom.

Neil Serven: But I think of like children in a school yard trying to outdo each other, kids probably wouldn't say they did a 180 figuratively. You can see some kid saying, "oh yeah, well I did a 360 and I changed course twice." And it's like, they're trying to outdo them with the number thinking that it's going to somehow mean a more enhanced version of doing a 180.

Emily Brewster: It's a natural inclination.

Neil Serven: A natural inclination.

Ammon Shea: And we see this, not just with math language, but with other kinds of scientific language. My favorite one recently is epicenter, which was initially defined as "the part of the earth surface directly above the focus of an earthquake." And yet increasingly in recent years, we've entered a new sense for it because of this increase in use, which has come up, which is just "center." And people view the epi- as meaning "more so." Center, but even, epi...

Neil Serven: Exact center, yeah.

Ammon Shea: Eppier. Epicenter, like really the center, like you take the center and then you go to the center of the center and that's the epicenter. But it really didn't have that meaning initially. It's a wonderful reminder I think that language changes in many ways. Some of them graceful, some of them rather, you know, kind of inelegant and changing by mistake is just as valid a way of language change as any other.

Peter Sokolowski: This is where it gives descriptivists bad names in the sense that the easy narrative is, if you make a mistake frequently enough as a language and it's observed and recorded, then that becomes the new meaning of a word.

Ammon Shea: Right. So it should be clear. We are not saying "if it feels good, do it," because that's not our purview. We are however saying, "if it feels good and you do it enough, we will take note of it and they will make mention of that change."

Peter Sokolowski: But that emphatic addition of a syllable or something, epicenter is more than a center somehow, which in the case of the coronavirus pandemic, for example, that word is used very frequently in that meaning alone. And many people used to correct that meaning, but there're others like the word utmost, or the word extraordinary, extra-ordinary, or the word superannuated, they add syllables to add this emphasis so we sometimes think that that's the way language works.

Emily Brewster: Well, and epi as a prefix doesn't really have much content. Its semantic meaning is really lost to some degree on most speakers of English.

Peter Sokolowski: It means "on or at," right? So, at the center, on the center, so epidemic is "on the people." A pandemic is all of the people.

Neil Serven: Emily's point is that people don't understand what that epi really mean. They want to use epicenter instead of center, it's like they're needlessly just for effect adding these syllables just because it feels better or it sounds better, or it sounds more greater attempt at accuracy than center gives, which isn't possible. There's no way they could really improve the centerness of the word center.

Ammon Shea: We get that with a lot of other relatively obscure prefixes. Penultimate is the classic. Penultimate is like the ultimate but even more ultimate, double ultimate.

Neil Serven: The original sense of ultimate means "the last," last item in a list or something. And then penultimate is the one that comes before that. So the word penultimate already exists with a different meaning apart from ultimate. And so when people use penultimate to mean ultimate, like he's the...

Peter Sokolowski: The very ultimate.

Neil Serven: The penultimate traveler or something, or some way of saying that he's the best example of something the way you try to use for ultimate, it does not work. It makes absolutely no sense unless somebody is standing behind that guy in the line, you can't be the penultimate something.

Emily Brewster: But what even is pen- as a prefix? That's not even a prefix that we enter in our dictionaries. P-E-N, the pen in penultimate.

Neil Serven: It isn't?

Emily Brewster: No, because it's used so rarely. As a prefix, it does not really have much function in the language. So no one, I think, unless you are taught or you go to your friendly dictionary, Merriam-Webster dot com and you look up the word penultimate, you cannot be blamed for not understanding what penultimate means.

Ammon Shea: Absolutely.

Peter Sokolowski: Pen in penultimate in Latin just meant "almost." So "almost last." Penultimate: almost last.

Neil Serven: Right? I think of penumbra, isn't that like a not a completely dark shadow of the moon, but it's like when it's almost in total darkness or something like that.

Peter Sokolowski: That makes good sense.

Emily Brewster: But it doesn't really function as an English prefix, right?

Neil Serven: Right, yeah.

Emily Brewster: It's interesting which prefixes people know and love and rely on and require things of.

Ammon Shea: Those are the good prefixes.

Emily Brewster: Right. (laughs) They are.

Peter Sokolowski: But one thing I think we should mention is how 180 is entered in the dictionary. It's entered, spelled out with a hyphen. Whereas if you look up 360 in our dictionary, you enter the numerals. Part of that is a legacy of different additions and over time. But it is interesting that we do sometimes enter numerals, which I believe are alphabetized, as you would say them, even...

Neil Serven: That's right. 360 would be under the Ts.

Peter Sokolowski: Under the Ts after three, right?

Emily Brewster: Sounds right.

Peter Sokolowski: So 180 would be in the Os, but in fact, the entry is there because it's spelled out frequently enough. So "I did a 180" and frequently in published texts, it's written out as words hyphenated rather than just the numerals. I think that's a sort of interesting data point from a lexical standpoint. Somebody at some point had to determine how to enter numerals lexically into the dictionary.

Ammon Shea: I feel like this conversation has taken a 527 degree turn.

Emily Brewster: Let us know what you think about Word Matters. Review us on Apple Podcasts. You can also visit us at NEPM.org and for the word of the day and all your general dictionary needs, visit Merriam-webster.com. Our theme music is by Tobias Voigt. Artwork by Annie Jacobson. Word Matters is produced by Adam Maid and John Voci. For Neil Serven, Ammon Shea, Peter Sokolowski. I'm Emily Brewster. Word Matters is produced by Merriam-Webster in collaboration with New England Public Media.

Love words? Need even more definitions?

Subscribe to America's largest dictionary and get thousands more definitions and advanced search—ad free!