pass the buck (1856)

Jonathan Lighter wuxxmupp2000 at YAHOO.COM
Mon Apr 25 14:22:42 UTC 2005

Possibly the fig. sense arose from statements such as, "Well, I reckon I'll pass the buck to you now," i.e., "give you your turn (to do something) / opportunity (to fulfill a task)" which was eventually misunderstood as "pass the unwanted responsibility on to you."

For someone unfamiliar with the game, this would be a very easy misperception to make.


Benjamin Zimmer <bgzimmer at RCI.RUTGERS.EDU> wrote:
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Sender: American Dialect Society
Poster: Benjamin Zimmer
Subject: Re: pass the buck (1856)

On Sun, 24 Apr 2005 21:15:04 -0400, Douglas G. Wilson wrote:

>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).

That squares with the 1937 DAE explanation that I gave upthread (the buck
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"). I'm still a little unclear about how
that works-- does the winner of the hand immediately get the deal and
choose the next game? Or does the deal rotate around the table and the
game stays the same until the deal coincides with the keeper of the buck,
at which point the buck goes in the pot again and a new game is called?

>Several examples suggest that "passing the buck" was such a salient
>feature of poker that it was used as a metaphor for "playing poker".

More frequently, I think, "(ante and) pass the buck" was used
metonymically for this particular poker style (cf. such imperative
descriptors as "hold 'em", "roll 'em", "follow the queen", etc.)

I'm still curious how the figurative sense emerged. AIUI, "passing the
buck" in the poker sense is not so much about shirking responsibility as
simply a necessary act from hand to hand. Wouldn't the imperative "(ante
and) pass the buck" be directed at the current winner (or dealer,
depending on the rules), who has to give up possession of the buck (e.g.,
by putting it back in the pot)? My sense is that "pass the buck" would
then mean "hurry up and move the play along."

Here's an early metaphorical usage, though as with the Twain citation it's
not entirely clear how the poker metaphor applies:

Washington Post, Oct 9, 1878, p. 2/3
Mr. Hayes gave $100 to the yellow fever fund; Mr. Tilden saw him and
raised him $150, and now Mr. Grant sees that $250 and goes $250 better. It
will cost Mr. Hayes $400 to come in. -- N.Y. World.
This is not a correct statement of the game. Hayes was asked to "ante,"
but declined, but not until he had fraudulently looked at his hand and
found only one of a kind, and nothing to draw to. Then he passed the buck
to Gorham.

And here are a few more examples of the emerging figurative usage of "ante
and pass the buck" (or "...the jug" in the first example), where it seems
to have the "move it along" sense:

Chester Times (Pa.), Jan. 19, 1883, p. 5/3
A few days ago a delegation of North ward citizens called upon Charles K.
Melville, city editor of the Chester Evening News and asked him if he
would accept the nomination for Councilman from his district if it was
tendered him. ... He felt it a duty to accede to their desires even at the
expense of his personal dignity.
"That settles it. Ante, and pass the jug," said one of the citizens.
Mr. Melville was again startled, but was informed that that was merely a
political expression.
Boston Globe, Oct 30, 1883, p. 4/5
Cowboy Sawyer -- Keno! Now you've tumbled. Tell Chandler to ante and pass
the buck.
Chicago Daily. Apr 28, 1894, p. 3/4
It has been for the last few days a case of "ante and pass the buck," with
the army figuring as the "buck" as well as the "kitty" in this game of

Perhaps "passing the buck" only became associated with avoiding
responsibility once this particular style of poker had become less popular
(and the referent for "buck" had been forgotten), so that the idiom "pass
the buck" could take on a life of its own separate from what it originally
meant in a poker context. Otherwise I have a hard time seeing how you get
from the poker sense to the figurative sense.

--Ben Zimmer

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