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So, just where is this omnibus taking us?

The Monitor's language columnist ponders how a word that once referred to horse-drawn carriages now refers to legislative packages with something for everyone.

By Ruth Walker / January 3, 2012



It's that time of year again. No, I don't mean just a new year. I mean a time when Congress has been tied up in knots trying to pass an omnibus bill to fund the federal government for the next little while – until the end of the fiscal year? Until after the next congressional recess? Until lunchtime?

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How did a word that once referred to horse-drawn carriages come to refer to legislative packages with something for everyone?

Omnibus has been part of the transport lingo of English since the 19th century, when the word entered the language to signify a four-wheeled vehicle with seats for passengers. In 1819, a Frenchman named Jacques Lafitte introduced in Paris a type of vehicle he called voiture omnibus, combining the French word for "carriage" with the Latin phrase meaning "for all."

An Englishman named George Shillibeer, who had worked for Lafitte, launched a similar service of horse-drawn buses in 1829 in London. Although his vehicles were known for a time as Shillibeers, "omnibus," or simply "bus," was the name that stuck.

The busboy of a restaurant goes back to this same little bit of Latin, it turns out. Omnibus was in use by 1888, according to the Online Etymology Dictionary, to refer to one who assisted a waiter in a restaurant – presumably in reference to the wheeled carts such helpers typically used to carry away dirty dishes. That led to busboy by 1913.

Contemporary dictionaries include such definitions of omnibus as "a book containing reprints of a number of works" (Merriam-Webster Online) – getting at the idea of an "anthology."

"Omnibus" was also the name of a long-running live TV series (1952-61) hosted by Alistair Cooke and featuring such midcentury luminaries as Leonard Bernstein, Helen Hayes, Jack Benny, and Orson Welles. The show lives on in box sets of DVDs. Among the highlights, according to a user review on the Internet Movie Database: "A Portrait of Grand Central Station, a fabulous live broadcast from the great temple of railroads, ending with Alistair Cook[e] broadcasting via mobile transmitter from the engineer's cab of the 20th Century Limited as it headed for Chicago."

But one of the most common uses of omnibus today is in the phrase "omnibus bill." Omnibus has been used since 1842 to refer to a piece of legislation that addresses several different issues in one bill. In other words, it has something for everyone. Some people don't want to hear this, but that's just about the definition of a good political deal.

As The New York Times put it in mid-December in a paragraph that will have passed into history by the time you see this, dear reader, "In a rare feat of bipartisan cooperation in the badly divided Congress, members of the House and Senate appropriations committees have nearly reached agreement on legislation to finance most of the government for the remainder of the fiscal year."

Not to put too fine a point on it, but as you may recall from Econ 101, the whole budget, not just most of it, is supposed to be set before the fiscal year starts.

Instead, the federal government rumbles along like a bus whose route seems to be determined only once all the passengers have boarded and they've worked out among themselves where they think they want to go.

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