pass the buck (1856)

Wilson Gray wilson.gray at RCN.COM
Mon Apr 25 01:54:51 UTC 2005

On Apr 24, 2005, at 9:15 PM, Douglas G. Wilson wrote:

> ---------------------- Information from the mail header
> -----------------------
> Sender:       American Dialect Society <ADS-L at LISTSERV.UGA.EDU>
> Poster:       "Douglas G. Wilson" <douglas at NB.NET>
> Subject:      Re: pass the buck (1856)
> -----------------------------------------------------------------------
> --------
> I looked at a few books (about poker etc.), which generally say that
> the
> buck was originally a knife but in modern times is a marker. Ostrow's
> "Complete Card Player" (1945) says the buck is a marker which
> identifies a
> player as having some special privilege, etc. (i.e., NOT necessarily
> marking the dealer). The only example of this which I noted in this
> book on
> brief glance had the buck placed in the pot in a certain style of
> dealer's
> choice game: whoever wins the pot has the buck which entitles him to
> choose
> the game on his next deal (and pass the buck to whoever wins that
> pot). I
> found a Hoyle from 1857 which was new enough to include poker, but not
> new
> enough to include the buck. (The poker of 1857 employed no straights,
> apparently. The high hand was four aces [four kings plus an ace was
> also
> unbeatable]. There was a common type of poker called "twenty-deck",
> using a
> deck of 20 cards.)
> Several examples suggest that "passing the buck" was such a salient
> feature
> of poker that it was used as a metaphor for "playing poker".
> As for the knife's point, I suspect it was usually a clasp knife,
> closed.
> Why use a knife? I suppose that in any game there would have been at
> least
> one man with a pocket knife.

It was still the custom as recently as the '50's for every male to
carry a pocket knife. My grandfather, a minister in the Methodist
Church, used his to trim his fingernails, sharpen pencils, etc. (He
used a single-edged, "Gem"- brand razor blade to trim his toenails.) We
young'uns used our pocket knives to play mumble-peg, cut string for
kites, carve initials into desks or tree trunks, etc.

-Wilson Gray

> Here is an early example mentioning the knife, consistent with the
> usual
> claim that the original buck was a knife.
> ----------
> _Steubenville Daily Herald and News_ (Steubenville OH), 12 Oct. 1875:
> p. 2(?):
> <<[From the Virginia, Nev., Chronicle.] It was a pleasant and right
> sociable little party that sat around a little pine table in the rear
> of a
> C street grocery, night before last. There were five men in the party
> ....
> each man had a number of white beans in front of him. They were playing
> cards, and kept pushing, from one to the other, a big jack-knife, which
> they called "the back," [sic] probably from the fact that it had a
> buckhorn, maybe, perhaps. .... / ".... Gimme three, and bet you five
> beans.
> .... See it and raise you six. ....">>
> ----------
> Apparently draw poker was the game. I presume "back" is a typo. for
> "buck"
> here. The etymology was apparently not entirely self-evident even
> then, though!
> -- Doug Wilson

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