passing the buck

Evading or ending responsibility by passing it on to someone else.

A dictionary will give you several explanations of ‘buck’ in its various incarnations as noun, verb or adjective. Today the word is most often used as a slang term for the American dollar. However, the ‘buck’ meant in this phrase is defined as: ‘an article used in a game of poker’ and that’s the buck that was first passed.

Poker was very popular in America during the latter half of the 19th century. Players were highly suspicious of cheating and there’s a great deal of folklore describing gunslingers in shoot-outs based on accusations of dirty dealing. In order to avoid unfairness the deal changed hands during sessions. The person who was next in line to deal would be given a marker. This was often a knife, and knives often had handles made of buck’s horn – hence the marker becoming known as a ‘buck.’ When the dealer’s turn was done he ‘passed the buck’ to the next dealer.

Later on, silver dollars were used as markers and this may be the origin of the use of ‘buck’ as a slang term for dollar.

The earliest use of the phrase in print is from the Weekly New Mexican, July 1865 and there were several such printed citations in the following years.

Using the phrase when no actual ‘buck’ was involved, began around the start of the 20th century. In May, 1902, The Oakland Tribune printed the following: [Oakland City Attorney] Dow said – ‘When the public or the Council “pass the buck” up to me I am going to act.’

The use of quotation marks around ‘pass the buck’ indicate its recent coinage as a figurative phrase, or at least one that the paper’s readers might not have known. 

This figurative use of ‘passing the buck’ led to the phrase ‘the buck stops here.’ The most famous example of ‘the buck stops here’ was the promise made by US president Harry S. Truman, and which he kept prominent in his own and his electors’ minds by putting it on a sign on his desk.

It’s fun creating new words or phrases. I think the following word, created by my friend, Joe, is a keeper:

‘Beditation’ – that period of time between waking up and getting out of bed (or going back to sleep) where you just lie there and think.

  One thought on “passing the buck

  1. Alice Becker
    October 6, 2015 at 8:43 am

    Another version:)

    Driving down Craigflower Road a few minutes ago and spotted a pretty well-fed buck munching on leaves from a tree. He gave me “the look”……don’t bother me, I won’t bother you.



    • October 6, 2015 at 11:46 am

      Hey! A whole new dimension to ‘passing the buck.’ Thanks!


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