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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.

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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?

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."


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