The Grammarphobia Blog

Passing the buck

Q: What is the origin of “pass the buck” and Harry Truman’s riff on it, “the buck stops here”?

A: This buck-passing and buck-stopping business can be traced back to the poker tables of the 19th century.

The term “buck,” according to The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.), once referred to a marker “passed from one poker player to another to indicate an obligation, especially one’s turn to deal.”

The Oxford English Dictionary has three 19th-century citations for the usage, including this one from Roughing It, Mark Twain’s 1872 book about his travels through the West: “I reckon I can’t call that hand. Ante and pass the buck.”

In the early 20th century, the expression “pass the buck” took on the figurative meaning of to shift responsibility to someone else.

The OED‘s first published reference for this sense is from The Red Button, a 1912 novel by Will Irwin:

“The Big Commissioner will get roasted by the papers and hand it to the Deputy Comish, and the Deputy will pass the buck down to me, and I’ll have to report how it happened.”

As for the plaque on Harry Truman’s desk, it of course meant that responsibility stopped with the president and couldn’t be passed on to anyone else.

Here’s how Truman describes it in his Public Papers, 1952-53: “When the decision is up before you  – and on my desk I have a motto which says ‘The buck stops here’  – the decision has to be made.”

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