By Vivian Molick from the September 2012 Edition
“Pass the Buck”
Do you ever wonder where or how these types of phrases originated? I do, so I went to check it out.
Today the meaning has come to mean “trying to avoid blame or responsibility by passing it on to someone else”. But, of course, that is not the origin of how or where it was used.
If you look up ‘buck’ in the dictionary you will find quite a few assorted nouns, verbs and adjectives listed. The most common use of the word these days is as the slang term for the American dollar. But, that is not what was meant by ‘buck’ here though. If you look a little further down the list you will find the definition ‘buck: an article used in a game of poker’… and that’s the buck that was first passed.
Poker became very popular in America during the second half of the 19th century. Players were highly suspicious of cheating or any form of favoritism, and there’s significant folklore depicting gunslingers in shoot-outs based on accusations of dirty dealing. In order to avoid unfairness, the deal would change hands during sessions. The person who was next in line to deal would be given a marker. This marker was often a knife, and knives often had handles made of buck’s horn – thus, the marker became known as a ‘buck’. When the dealer’s turn was finished he ‘passed the buck’.
Later in history, silver dollars were used as markers and this is probably the origin of the use of ‘buck’ as a slang term for dollar.
The earliest mention that could be found of the literal use of the phrase in print was from the Weekly New Mexican, July 1865: “They draw at the commissary and at poker after they have passed the buck”. This seems to be around the time the phrase was coined and there are several such printed notations in the following years.
The figurative version of the phrase (a usage where no actual buck is present) begins around the start of the 20th century. For example, this article in the California newspaper The Oakland Tribune, from May, 1902: [Oakland City Attorney] Dow – ‘When the public or the Council “pass the buck” up to me I am going to act.’ The writer’s use of quotations marks around pass the buck is an indication of its recent coinage as a figurative phrase, or at least one that the paper’s readers might not have been expected to be familiar with.
Probably the best known use of buck in this context is ‘the buck stops here’, which was the promise made by US president Harry S. Truman, and in which he kept prominent in his own (and his elector’s) mind by putting it on a sign he placed on his desk.
Thus, the term… “pass the buck”.