President Obama, in discussing accountability for security measures, invoked the memory of former President Harry Truman when he told Americans, “The buck stops with me.” Truman had a little plaque on his desk that read: “The Buck Stops Here!” The sign was made by an uncredited artisan forever condemned to oblivion, an inmate of the federal reformatory in El Reno, Oklahoma. So what’s a buck, and why do strong leaders say it stops with them?
The phrase stems from “pass the buck,” which everyone agrees means to “evade responsibility,” a practice usually tinged with pusillanimity. So whoever the buck stops with is the person responsible, and most Americans would prefer that person to be the President, as opposed, say, to some gum-chewing border guard, preening social secretary, or, heaven forfend, ranting talk show host.
Word sleuths agree that buck in this sense originated in the game of poker. It was a marker of some sort that was placed on the table and moved from player to player to indicate whose turn it was to deal. Some say the marker was a knife with a buckhorn handle; others that it was a buckshot or the tail of a buck deer, carried as a talisman. By passing the buck (whatever it was) to the next player and giving up his turn, a player avoided both the requirement to ante for a new hand and the responsibility of being accused of a crooked deal. Timorous souls preferred not to be the dealer.
Mark Twain’s Innocents at Home, published in 1872, was the first printed source of the term “pass the buck.” In it a poker-player says: “You ruther hold over me, pard. I reckon I can’t call that hand. Ante and pass the buck.”
One authority (or so he claims to be) opines that instead of an actual buck, sometimes a silver dollar was used as a marker, but it was still called a buck, giving rise to the slang word for a dollar. The Oxford English Dictionary sniffs at any such etymology and simply says the origin of buck meaning “dollar” is “obscure.” Webster’s concocts some elaborate and unconvincing theory about buck deriving from sawbuck, a ten-dollar bill, which in turn stemmed from the Dutch zaagbok or sawhorse.
The Bard of Buffalo Bayou, who would love to have more bucks, just like Daddy Warbucks, will certainly not earn them with pseudo-poetic spoutings like this:
In the woods lived a cute little deer,
And a big, antlered buck was her beau.
“The buck,” she said, “always stops here,
So he can make a little doe.”