Saturday, April 11, 2009

Backs and Buses

What is the nicest thing you can do for someone? What is the apotheosis of friendship? These actually aren't difficult questions. For anyone who pays a smidgen of attention to vernacular, it is readily obvious that you know someone is your friend if they "have got your back."

I'll admit that I didn't pick up on this trend until I noticed its prevalence in student essays (if anyone wants to understand our culture and how it has changed over time, forget blogs, all you need to do is study essays written in college freshman comp classes). In particular, I've read several "definition essays," in which a popular topic to define is "friendship," and invariably, there is some mention of friends "having each other's back." With my radar attuned, I've noticed the phrase being invoked constantly. Some samples from google:

"Unemployed in the U.K.? McDonalds has your back!"
"Fear not Oprah, Tyrese has your back!"
" has your back"
"Curved imac has your back" (Nice one there)
"John Mayer: Jennifer Aniston has my back"
"Obama has my back"
"Beyonce's dad has her back"
"Miley Cyrus: Ashley Tisdale has her back"
"Jessica Disses Carrie Underwood, but PETA has her back"

Okay, so a good friend will always have your back. But what is the meanest thing someone can do? Not have your back? No, actually, the apotheosis of mean is to "throw [someone] under the bus." About a year ago, Newsweek lamented the sudden ubiquity of the term, and from my observation, it hasn't declined in usage since. In fact, a google news search reveals that literally hours ago (as I write this), a public defender in an Ohio criminal case (in which a man stands accused of trying to collect urine from a public restroom) has been quoted as saying that the media has thrown his client "under the bus." Also mere hours ago, a Vermont paper editorialized that "our current Legislature is pandering to the special interests while throwing the public interest under the bus."

What strikes me as odd in both of these idioms is that the fear being expressed is so anachronistic. Though "having someone's back" may have military applications, I associate the phrase with an Old West sensibility, in which people literally needed help in watching their backs. So the actual prominence of the phrase stands in sharp contrast to its literal usefulness. Likewise, in the early days of public transportation, I suppose buses could have been scary. But given all of the potential dangers lurking in modern culture, the threat of being run over by a bus resides pretty low on my list of worries.

Yet despite the oddity and the clumsiness of the metaphors we use to express our sentiments, there is obviously a great need to discern and to distinguish a true friend from a potential betrayer. And whatever the vernacular tics of a given time, the concept itself has been constant through the ages. We are reminded in particular this time of year that just because one kisses you does not mean they will not throw you under a bus, and even if someone tells you they will never turn away from you when all else do, they still might not have your back.

So what's the nicest thing you can do for someone? Well, I suppose if you offer up your back for a flogging so that your friend doesn't have to suffer, you can properly say that you "have got their back."


Blogger mhoce said...

There is one friend that I have who I know would "have my back" in a good situation or bad. If I lived in the wild west he would have my back in a heartbeat.

He is the one friend that I have who to me is the definition of friend. We don't always have to talk all the time but when we do there is never any hard feelings if one of us forgot to return a phone call or we haven't talked for a while. We don't shoot each other down, we just understand.

4:51 PM  
Blogger Heidi said...

Hey you --

I started another blog.


1:26 AM  

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