Each day, millions of people hop on and off a Latin dative plural as they carry out their lives. They take the bus. Let’s ride its etymology to see where it stops.

"Bus." Doodle by @andrescalo.
“Bus.” Doodle by @andrescalo.


As the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) records, bus is first attested as buss in 1832. The word is shortened from the Latin omnibus, literally meaning “for all.” Concerning its origin, the OED offers:

the earliest use was in French in 1825, reportedly to denote vehicles run by a M. Baudry for the purpose of transporting passengers between Nantes and a nearby bathing place. The idea for the name is said to have come from a tradesman with the surname ‘Omnès’ who had the legend ‘Omnès omnibus’ written on the nameplate of his firm…

The vehicle–appearing in the French phrase voiture omnibus, “carriage for all,” in 1835–was originally a four-wheeled, horse-drawn public passenger vehicle and was distinct from other, more exclusive modes of transport of the time.

To Whom, It Concerns

If you can recall reciting your Latin declensions, omnibus is the dative plural, as noted, of the noun omnis, “all” or “everything.”

Indo-European languages are inflected languages. For our purposes here, this means, among other things, that endings are added to the base form of a noun. These endings, which take different cases, change the meaning and function of a noun in an utterance. One of these cases is the dative case, named after the Latin for “to give.” It is used to mark indirect objects. Put simplistically, the dative case shows that something has been given to the noun of interest. So, an omnibus is a vehicle made available to or for everybody.

For a fee, of course.

English, too, historically used such case endings, but they most fell off over time. Language pedants, prescriptivists, and self-appointed police officers actively patrol, however, one of the last vestiges of case in English: whom, hwām or hwǣm in Old English, and whose m indicates the dative case. Pronouns preserve cases, too, which is why we say he or his or him depending on what he has going on.

In Latin, omnis is a noun of the so-called “third declension,” and so it follows a system of endings such that its dative plural is –ibus. Hence, omnibus. This ending is actually reconstructed in Proto-Indo-European: *oibh(y)os.


Millions may ride the omnibus, but trillions ride on the omnibus bill newly passed in the U.S. Congress. There was much political, economic, and linguistic to-do about this congressional omnibus spending bill–sometimes referred to as the Cromnibus, a veritable Frankenstein of a word, a portmanteau of omnibus and CR, “continuing resolution,” an initialism on its own but acronymic in Cromnibus.

According to the OED, omnibus has been referring to such big bills, which lumps together a great many legislative matters, especially budgets, since 1842. Omnibus has also referred to similarly “all-encompassing” books, newspapers, and broadcast programs.

Speaking of bills, busboys would collect fare from passengers as early as 1867. A few decades later, the term was transferred to “supplementary waiters” who cleared tables at restaurants, particularly in the U.S., the OED notes.

Omnia Considered

You may recognize the Latin omnia in other forms. It appears in amor vincit omnia, a Latin expression you probably know as “love conquers all.” It appears divinely, if you will, in the prefix, omni-, in words like omniscient, omnipotent, and omnipresent. We can worship our celebrities on the big screen at an omniplex. Omnivores eat “everything,” biologically speaking.

Do we know anything about “everything”? The American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots sees omnis as rooted in  the Proto-Indo-European *op-, “work” or “produce in abundance.” Due to phonetic assimilation, a suffixed form, *op-ni, eventually yielded omnis. It is this sense of abundance, at first natural and later abstract, that furnishes the notion of “all things,” I suspect.

This *op- did a lot of jobs via the Latin opus. It made opera, operate, opulent, and opus. Collaborating with the prefix for “with,” co-, it put together cooperate, copy, and copious. Working with the verb to do, facere, it went to the office. And it got its hands dirty, clasped with manus (“hand”) and fashioned via French, to make maneuver and manure. Inure is another derivative.

Seems the etymology of bus is its own kind of omnibus.

m ∫ r ∫ 


2 thoughts on “bus

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