Just where does the buck stop?

“The buck stops here” may have been made famous by US President Harry S Truman, but the origin is likely to be from something a little more underhand.

While most of us know that the saying, ‘the buck stops here’, means that person is responsible for whatever happens, its origins are a little less honourable. It is believed that the saying is actually derived from ‘passing the buck’, a common phrase in poker.

A buck is actually a knife, the handle of which is made from buck’s horn, and not the slang term for an American dollar as is commonly thought. Originating in the second half of the 19th century, such a knife would be used to mark whose turn it was to deal the cards. In order to avoid cheating, it was deemed fair to share the dealer’s role. When a person was finished their turn, they would pass the marker, the buck-handled knife to the next person. Hence, passing the buck.

The saying ‘the buck stops here’ would probably have gone unheard of had it not appeared on the sign that sat on Truman’s desk. What many people may not know is that the sign that Mr Truman seemed to hold so dear was actually gifted to him by a friend, Fred Canfil, a US Marshall for Missouri. In fact, on the back of the sign was inscribed with, ‘I’m from Missouri’, short for ‘I’m from Missouri. Show Me.’ These were words commonly spoken by sceptical natives of the state, known as the ‘show me state’, which was also where Truman was born.

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Written by Debbie McTaggart


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