Erik And PP, The meaning of ‘bum’ in this expression in not in question – it’s the ‘steer.’ ‘Steer’ has two meanings in standard English – one the animal and the other as I mention above is the noun form of the verb ‘to guide a course.’ Every source I consulted said the ‘steer’ here was the second and not the first, although I admit that in my own mind I always thought of it as being the animal and perhaps some sources do think of it that way, but I haven’t seen any that do. And in Cassell’s, since both forms are Standard English, it is not clear which one they are referring to. The New Shorter OED says that ‘steer’ derives from the verb (guide to a specified point or in a specified direction) and means ‘A piece of advice or information; a tip, a lead; a direction. <The public must give a clear steer . . as to which route the [police] service should follow.> BUM STEER slang (a piece of) false information or bad advice.
In light of the fact that in the OED ‘bum steer’ is defined under ‘steer’ the guide and not the animal, as is the case with Random House and Merriam-Webster’s above, I would guess that the origin of the expression was probably as I indicated, but that the expression has probably come to be interpreted by many to refer to the animal. However, origin aside, I have never seen nor heard ‘a bum steer’ referred to as a physical object – “a tangible object that's a dud, a loser” – and that is certainly not what Cassell’s defines it as. So I do not see their entries as confirmation of PP’s or your assertion. As far as I am aware, ‘bum steer’ has always been a piece of bad verbal advice, but, of course, there are always nonstandard usages out there that I have not seen. Erik, is ‘bum steer’ an expression that is used much in England and perhaps there has the meaning you suggest? But I did check Eric Partridge’s Dictionary of Slang which usually covers most British expressions and ‘bum steer’ was not listed.
PP, Didn’t mean to make light of your reading of the meaning of the expression, but there are many words and phrases that I have misinterpreted for many years, and they seemed to fit, only to find out years later that I had done so. I was kind of assuming to myself that this might be the case with your interpretation. In fact, one of these instances occurred in these hallowed halls, much to my embarrassment, only last year. I was amazed to find out, when corrected, that there was no such word as ‘lengthly,’ which someone had the nerve to tell me was supposed to be ‘lengthy.’ So these things do happen in the best of families. With the corroboration by Erik, however, it does appear that there is something to your interpretation – unless of course you are both delusional. (<:)
Ken – November 6, 2003
Reply from Ken Greenwald (Fort Collins, CO - U.S.A.)