Now, it’s time for Words and Their Stories.
Each week, we try to have a new story. In these stories, we explain English words and expressions. Often, they come from day-to-day events in our lives and become part of the language.
The expression “pass the buck” is an example. A card game may be the origin of this American expression.
Gamblers in saloons of the Old West may be responsible for “pass the buck.” To understand how we have to learn about the game of poker – then and now.
In poker, each player, one after another, mixes the playing cards, and then passes them out. They deal them. Back then, an object — often a Buck knife — was placed in front of a player whose turn it was to deal.
A man named Hoyt Buck created the Buck knife back in the early 1900s. As a young blacksmith in Kansas, Buck wanted to find a better way to make knife blades stronger and hold their sharp edge longer. He produced his first Buck knife in 1902 and the family company is still making Buck knives today.
But let’s get back to the poker game.
Okay, so the person with the marker, or the “buck,” in front of them had a decision to make. They could either keep the deal or give it to another player. They would pass the Buck knife, or other similar marker, when they did not want the responsibility of dealing.
So, today when someone passes the buck, they fail to take responsibility for a problem. They want someone else to solve it.
“Pass the buck” led to another American expression. Former President Harry Truman, who enjoyed playing poker, made this one famous.
A friend of Truman’s presented him with a small sign for his White House office. The sign said: “The buck stops here.” This meant that Truman was responsible for what happened in the country. The president cannot “pass the buck.”
There are other ways to express the meanings of “pass the buck.”
You could also say “avoid responsibility” or even “evade responsibility.”
If you shift the blame, you try to make someone else take responsibility for something you did. Many work places have these types of people. For whatever reason, they are unable to take responsibility for their mistakes. These types of people try to shift the blame to others.
When you evade responsibility, you refuse to own up to something you did. You can also evade responsibility for something you failed to do. However, evading responsibility does not necessarily mean placing it on someone else. “Passing the buck” does – you force someone else to deal with a problem or issue.
Sometimes we simply say we “own it” — “it” being the mistake. If you “own” something that has gone wrong, you take full responsibility for it. We also say things like, “That’s on me!” or “My bad!” These are very casual and common ways of saying, “It’s my fault!”
Now, let’s hear the words and expressions in a short dialogue.
A: Okay, so our meeting with the client is tomorrow at 4 pm. They want to see a mock-up of our interactive web page. I have all the content written. Are you finished with the draft yet?
B: Um, Allen is making the draft web page.
A: He told me that you wanted to do it.
B: I did not say that. My job is to find images and videos. He is trying to pass the buck … again!
A: Yeah, he does that a lot, doesn’t he. Well, we need something to show the client tomorrow. Do you have the images?
B: Yeah, they’re on this flash drive. Wait. Where is the flash drive?
A: I don’t know.
B: Oh man! I do! I left it on the train coming into work today.
A: So, let me get this straight. Our meeting with the client is tomorrow afternoon and we don’t have a web page or images.
B: Losing the images is on me. I’ll load another flash drive today. But I have nothing to do with the web page!
A: Don’t worry about that. I’m project manager. So, ultimately the buck stops with me. You just get me the videos and photos by close of business. I’ll take care of the rest.
B: Got it!
And that’s the end of this Words and Their Stories.
Practice using one of the expressions you heard here. Describe a time when maybe you passed the buck or owned up to a mistake!
I’m Anna Matteo.
You got to know when to hold ’em, know when to fold ’em,
Know when to walk away, and know when to run.
You never count your money when you’re sittin’ at the table.
There’ll be time enough for countin’ when the dealings done.
Anna Matteo wrote this story with some historical research written by Deborah Potter. Caty Weaver was the editor. The song at the end is Kenny Rogers singing “The Gambler.”
Words in This Story
origin – n. rise, beginning, or derivation from a source
gambler – n. one who risks something of value for the chance of winning a prize
saloon – n. a place where alcoholic drinks are served especially : such a place in the western U.S. during the 19th century
deal – v. card games : to distribute (playing cards) to players
blacksmith – n. a person who makes or repairs things made of iron (such as knives or horseshoes)
evade – v. to avoid dealing with or facing (something)
shift – v. to go or to cause (something) to go from one person or thing to another
fault – n. responsibility for a problem, mistake, bad situation, etc.
mock-up – n. a working sample (as of a magazine) for reviewing format, layout, or content
interactive – adj. designed to respond to the actions, commands, etc., of a user
draft – n. a version of something (such as a document) that you make before you make the final version
ultimately – adv. in the end