Where Does the Phrase “to Pass the Buck” Come From and What Does It Mean?

There is no uncertainty about the source of the term “to pass the buck”. Poker.

But, just as the origin of the American game of poker is shrouded in mystery, so is the origin of this phrase.

Probably both the name of the game and the game itself come from an old German game, pochspiel, which was also a game of bluff, but this is little more than a guess.

The game seems to have developed in the United States during the first quarter of the nineteenth century; first as straight poker, and later, about 1845, with draw poker its earliest modification. Until comparatively recent years, poker was not what would have been called a “gentlemen’s game”; it was a game for the barroom or for the lumber or mining camp.

Few of the men who played it were literate, and, therefore, the reasons or the occasions for some of the terms used in the game were not recorded. No one knows, for instance, how “stud poker” got its name.

It may be, as someone has surmised, that a stud horse was the stake in an early exciting stage of its development. Our present phrase, “to pass the buck,” came into use probably around the time of the Civil War, though Mark Twain, in 1872, gives us the earliest record of it.

The “buck” was some sort of object passed from one player to another as a reminder that the next deal would fall to the second person. Because of the present-day practice of using a pocket knife for the purpose, and because early knives often had buckhorn handles, it has been suggested that “buck” came from that source.

That is possible, but, in my opinion, unlikely. Knives carried by the poker players of that period were more likely to be hunting knives than pocket knives, and were too large for so slight a purpose.

A buckshot would have served the need, or, possibly, a bucktail carried as a talisman.

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