How did "getting hit by a bus" come to mean "unexpected tragedy"?

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July 28 2009 6:02 PM

The Explainer Gets Hit by a Bus

The origins of the catastrophic cliché.

A bus. Click image to expand.
How "getting hit by a bus" became shorthand for medical catastrophe

At a White House press conference last week, President Obama conceded that we may never achieve 100 percent health-insurance coverage without a single-payer system, "because there's always going to be somebody out there who thinks they're indestructible and doesn't want to get health care … and then, unfortunately … they get hit by a bus, end up in the emergency room, and the rest of us have to pay for it." When did getting "hit by a bus" become the standard image of unexpected catastrophe?

Probably in the mid-20th century. The earliest instance the Explainer could find of a bus accident as a generic rather than literal example of misfortune is from Joseph Conrad's 1907 novel, The Secret Agent: "But just try to understand that it was a pure accident; as much an accident as if he had been run over by a 'bus while crossing the street." Then, in the 1930s, a few more examples from British fiction, like this line from The Piccadilly Murder (1930): "Mr. Chitterwick was benevolently dismissed until the trial … with instructions not to fall down a precipice or get run over by a bus in the interim." On this side of the Atlantic, there are scattered instances in the mid-'30s and a seemingly higher frequency starting in the 1960s. By the time the Nexis news database went online, the expression was already a print cliché. Take the Globe and Mail, a Canadian newspaper. On Jan. 17, 1980: "[A]ny leader can be hit by a bus and it doesn't prevent you from voting for his party." From Jan. 15, 1983: "[S]hort of being hit by a bus or refused a credit card from Canadian Tire, there is nothing as unpleasant for a man than to be considered womanish." And in July of that same year, "If a president of a big corporation gets hit by a bus, someone can take his place."

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Obama's invocation of getting "hit by a bus" was as much a cautionary tale as a generic tragedy: Look what might happen if you don't buy health care. In fact, the phrase has long been deployed in conjunction with advice of some kind. For example, it's long been associated with the maternal injunction to wear clean underwear. In the 1991 Lynne Tillman story "A Dead Summer," we find: "Her mother, when she was alive, had never been one of those mothers who said, 'Always wear clean underpants, because what if you get hit by a bus.' " And in Bless Me, Father, for I Have Sinned: Catholics Speak Out About Confession, published in 1984, there's this anecdote: "It's just as my mother always said. Going to Confession is like wearing clean underwear because you never know when that phantom bus is going to hit."

The unexpected bus accident has also entered business slang in the context of human-resources management, as in this piece of advice from the Web site ISP-Planet: "An important test for a growing ISP is the 'bus test' "—meaning that if a given employee is hit by a bus and dies, can the company get along? If not, it's time to build redundancies into your work force.

Bonus Explainer: What are the odds of getting hit by a bus? Very low. According to the Department of Transportation, 10 pedestrians and bicyclists died in 2007 as a result of being run over by a cross-country or intercity bus in the United States. That's out of 5,400 people who were killed by vehicles of all types, including cars and trucks. (Not everyone who gets hit by a bus is killed, of course, and these numbers leave out all accidents involving municipal bus lines.)

Got a question about today's news? Ask the Explainer.

Explainer thanks Elly Martin of the Department of Transportation, Jesse Sheidlower of the Oxford English Dictionary, and Ben Zimmer of the Visual Thesaurus.

Juliet Lapidos is a former Slate associate editor.