Is there any difference between the phrases "thrown under a bus" and "thrown to the wolves"? As far as I can tell they mean basically the same thing, but the "bus" phrases came into existence after the "wolves" phrase was already fully established, so maybe there's some connotations I'm missing.
They actually convey different meanings and are used in different contexts:
The clichéd expression throw under the bus means, roughly, (1) to betray, (2) to callously dispose of, or (3) to pass blame onto another for selfish reasons. It has been ubiquitous in the U.S. media for several years. While the expression might work in rare circumstances, it reeks of hyperbole and introduces violent imagery where it usually isn’t called for.
In our search for examples in the news, about half the instances of under the bus dealt with actual vehicular violence, which to us confirms that the expression is not just overextreme but insensitive. Granted, there are many common expressions that evoke violence (including the synonymous stab in the back), but this one is worse because it’s so ubiquitous.
If betray isn’t a good enough replacement for throw under the bus, consider double-cross, dupe, put one over, bamboozle, hang out to dry, or sell out. Some of these are themselves clichés, but at least they’re not widely overused at the moment.
- Also, throw to the dogs or lions. Send to a terrible fate; sacrifice someone, especially so as to save oneself. For example, Leaving him with hostile reporters was throwing him to the wolves, or If Bob doesn't perform as they expect, they'll throw him to the lions. All three hyperbolic terms allude to the ravenous appetite of these animals, which presumably will devour the victim. The first term comes from Aesop's fable about a nurse who threatens to throw her charge to the wolves if the child does not behave. [First half of 1900s ]
Regarding the attribution of "Thrown to the wolves" to Aesop's fable, I would suggest that that does not capture the essence of the phrase.
Thrown to the wolves has always, to my mind, had the sense of sacrificing someone else to save oneself or to save others. i.e. pushing someone out of a lifeboat if there isn't enough room or water.
The attribution I've heard, which I'm going to pursue with a professor of Russian literature in my family, is that it comes from Russian literature where a peasant would be thrown from a troika when pursued by wolves, in order to satisfy or delay the wolves.
My understanding is:
I've seen "Thrown under the bus" used as a person being tattled upon to authority. It may be just or unjust, but they are exposed for a real or false wrongdoing. The motive may be the whistle-blower out for gain at the other's expense or to simply prevent the victim of this tactic from doing any more damage to the shared situation, frequently in a workplace or school.
I've primarily seen "Thrown to the wolves" as meaning simply exposing a person to mob mentality or being abandoned in an environment where they are helpless and likely to fall victim to whatever hazards will ultimately end their endeavors unsuccessfully.
The key difference here is that "the bus" indicates one singular source of authority being the hazard, whereas "the wolves" indicates a source of danger that is at ground-level, similar in class or social standing to the victim -- basically "the masses" or the environment/nature itself, and plural in nature.