pass the buck (1856)

Benjamin Zimmer bgzimmer at RCI.RUTGERS.EDU
Sun Apr 24 07:00:07 UTC 2005

I found a cite for "pass the buck" antedating Mark Twain's 1872 usage.
It's as cryptic as the Twain passage, but at least it corroborates the
poker derivation:

1856 ANON. in W. A. PHILLIPS _The Conquest of Kansas_ 303 At last Buck
Creek appears. We think how gladly would we '_pass_' the _Buck_ as at
'_poker_;' but we are not playing that game now, although, before getting
through, we got to '_all fours_.';cc=moa;g=moagrp;xc=1;idno=AFK4442.0001.001;view=image;seq=0303

So the poker expression must have been well-known enough (in antebellum
Kansas, at least) for the writer to be able to make a pun on it.

The original source for this piece was the _Kansas Weekly Herald_ in July
or August of 1856, under the title "Notes To and From the Siege of
Lawrence."  It was written by "an unidentified humorist" who "kept a
quasi-factual diary of his adventures", according to this article:
"Notes on the Proslavery March Against Lawrence."
Kansas Historical Quarterly, Feb. 1942 (Vol. XI, No. 1), pp 45-64.

Laurence Horn <laurence.horn at YALE.EDU> wrote:
>One is that the "buck" in question that designated the current dealer
>is (as I understand it, although that's not part of the HDAS entry)
>the handle of a buck knife (with the blade presumably pointing away
>from the dealer).

Douglas G. Wilson <douglas at NB.NET> wrote:
>That's the usual story (I think), given in DARE for example: "buck" <
>"buckhorn knife". I've also seen somewhere the speculation that the
>marker was originally a silver dollar. I don't know whether there's any
>real evidence.
>As David James points out, it would be natural for "buck" to refer to the
>deck of cards. I can't find any evidence of this right away.
>Why would a marker be needed at all? Wouldn't the possession of the deck
>identify the dealer automatically? There are various possible
>explanations: e.g., maybe in many cases a house dealer dealt all the
>hands but the marker rotated to identify the man who was to speak first
>on a given deal.

Another explanation is given by this Chicago Tribune article about the
_Dictionary of American English_ (then up to the letter B):

Chicago Tribune, Dec 5, 1937, p. 24
"I reckon I can't call that hand. Ante and pass the buck," was the
quotation from one of Mark Twain's characters. Members of the dictionary
staf investigated and found that the original "buck" in a poker game was
usually a knife or pencil tossed into the pot and held by the winner until
his turn to deal, when he would put the buck back into the pot and choose
his own game for that hand. It was a neat way to curb "dealers' choice"
By not calling his opponent the character who made the remark shifted
responsibility for choosing the game -- his had he called and won -- to
another player.

I also came across the variant "(ante and) shove the buck":

1878 F. H. HART _Sazerac Lying Club_ 33 I was in thar one day, and the
boys was playin' poker at four bits ante and shove the buck, and whisky
was a flowin' like this here Reese River.;cc=moa;g=moagrp;xc=1;idno=BAA7967.0001.001;view=image;seq=00000035
text also at:

-- Ben Zimmer

More information about the Ads-l mailing list