Historically Speaking

Making sense of it all!

The Buck Stops Here

Posted by Elyse Bruce on December 2, 2010

The expression “the buck stops here” was made famous by U.S. President Harry Truman.   The “buck” Truman meant came from the phrase “to pass the buck” — a euphemism that means the shifting of responsibility to another person to escape any possible repercussions yourself. Most often the phrase referred to moving the blame up along the chain of command to one’s superior or boss.

In 1945, United States Marshal for the Western District of Missouri, Fred M. Canfil saw a sign with the phrase “the buck stops here” while visiting the Federal Reformatory at El Reno, Oklahoma in 1945. He thought the phrase might appeal to  Truman and arranged for a copy of it to be made and sent to him. It was seen on the President’s desk on and off throughout the balance of his presidency.

But even before then, during WWII, Colonel A. B. Warfield was the commandant of the Lathrop Holding and Reconsignment Depot at Stockton, California.  Over the course of numerous years, he kept a sign on his desk and was photographed with it in October 1942 for a story in the Reno Evening Gazette.  Based on the sign alone, the phrase “the buck stops here” may have been used as early as 1931.

In July of 1902, The Oakland Tribune, ran a piece in their newspaper that read in part:

[Oakland City Attorney] Dow – ‘When the public or the Council “pass the buck” up to me I am going to act.’

The reporter’s use of quotation marks around pass the buck indicates it was a relatively recent phrase within the context the reporter was using it, and it was certain that because it was a commonly used phrase in those parts already. 

In July of 1865, the  Weekly New Mexican reported that:

They draw at the commissary, and at poker after they have passed the ‘buck.’

That being said, Mark Twain cited the phrase “passing the buck” as common slang in Virginia City when he was a reporter working there in 1862.  Not long afterwards, the phrase was associated with the act of dodging responsibility.

But in the end, the phrase “to pass the buck” itself was taken from the game of poker.  Poker became very popular in America in the mid 1800s. Players were very sensitive to the probability of cheating among players and to minimize cheating and quell suspicions, it was agreed that the deal would always change hands during sessions.  

Whoever was next in line to deal was given a marker — most often a knife with a buck horn for a handle — and it’s this marker that was known as the buck. When the dealer’s turn was done he ‘passed the buck.’   When silver dollars replaced knives as markers, the habit of referring to the dollar as a buck became the rage.

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2 Responses to “The Buck Stops Here”

  1. Truman also had that saying on his desk.

  2. Check out this message from someone directly related to Colonel A. B. Warfield!

    https://idiomation.wordpress.com/about/#comment-3821

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