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A Word for All

Watching the film of Apollo 13 the other day, that famous reference to the source of the astronauts’ problem “we have a main bus B undervolt”, reminded me that bus is an excellent example of language evolution in action.

It started out in French in 1828 in its full form omnibus as part of the name for a new type of public transport that was open to everyone, of any social class. It was a long coach with seats down each side, which was called a voiture omnibus, a “carriage for everyone”, where omnibus is the dative plural of the Latin omnis, “all”, hence “for all”. (That classic Shakespearean stage direction, exeunt omnes, or “everybody leaves”, includes another form of the same word.)

The idea, and the word, were brought over almost immediately into England and into English. A London newsletter of 1829 noted that “The new vehicle, called the omnibus, commenced running this morning [4 July] from Paddington to the City”. As this shows, the French phrase was at once shortened (voiture was obviously foreign rubbish, but omnibus was classical and we could live with that). By 1832, it had been abbreviated further to the form we have today, bus, one of our weirder linguistic inventions, since it consists just of part of a Latin suffix, –ibus, with no root word in it at all. So immediate was the acceptance of omnibus into our language armoury that in 1831, only two years after its first use in English, Washington Irving could aim and fire it figuratively in reference to the Reform Bill: “The great reform omnibus moves but slowly”.

The most noticeable characteristic of the bus was that, being a public conveyance, it gathered into itself all manner of diverse people, who were brought together solely by their desire to travel in the same direction. This idea of a miscellaneous collection was taken up and, by the 1840s, omnibus had gained the sense of a large number of distinct items or objects lumped together solely for convenience. This turned up first in the British Parliament, where omnibus bills were measures that contained a lot of miscellaneous proposals; as one German commentator wrote in 1857, they were “bills which contain laws dissimilar in their character and purposes”. So when a report appeared in the Western Daily Press of Bristol in February 1884, “The Omnibus Bill has been rejected”, you will understand that this may have had nothing at all to do with public transport.

There were other phrases, too, indicating that the British really took this strange new word to their hearts: omnibus box was adopted for a theatre box for the use of a number of subscribers, and an omnibus train stopped at all the stations along its route. Both are long since defunct. But later on the word was applied to the new technology of electricity, in which the term omnibus bar was given to a conductor, a copper rod or bar, that carried the whole of the power output from a source, for all purposes. This is the origin of the term bus bar, so memorably abbreviated to bus by the astronauts. These days it is perhaps more familiar to a lot of people because of its use in computing for one of a series of control pathways.

Though there had been a couple of examples of its use for a type of newspaper back in the early 1830s, it was only in the 1920s that the word was also employed for collections of varied writings, usually by the same author. The Daily Telegraph said in 1929: “It is a day of what the publishers call ‘omnibus books’, meaning works which carry many and varied passengers”. Later, of course, it was applied to radio and television programmes, frequently soaps, that were compilations of several broadcasts in a series, like the long-established omnibus editions of The Archers on British radio.

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.

Page created 20 Feb 1999