Pass The Buck

To pass the buck is a common idiomatic expression which has been in used since at least the early 1900’s.

Meaning of Pass the Buck

To pass the buck means to avoid responsibility or blame for something by passing it on to another person, or to let another person do something you were supposed to do. Politicians are often known for passing the buck.

Synonyms of pass the buck are cop out, dodge, palm off, and weasel out.


“I hate my boss. He is incompetent and every time he screws up, he passes the buck on to one of us. Then, when we do something well, he takes the credit.”

Harry Truman at desk - probable origin of idiom pass the buck
Pass the buck is the probable origin of the phrase made famous by President Harry Truman, ‘The buck stops here.’


Pass the buck originated in poker games of the 19th century, particularly those in the saloons and riverboats of the old West. A small object would be placed in front of the person whose turn it was to deal the cards. According to some sources, this object was often a knife with an antler handle, a common sort of knife to have in those days. Since male deer have antlers and are called bucks, these knives were called ‘bucks.’ Other sources say a small piece of buckshot was used for the dealer’s marker. It may also have been a silver dollar. In all probability, any small object was used. Whatever the case, the marker was called a buck.

When it was time for a new dealer, the buck was passed to the next player in line.

If a player didn’t want to deal, he would place the buck in front of the player next to him, thus passing the buck. He might even say, “I’m passing the buck.” Dealing could be a daunting responsibility when you were trying to keep a hidden ace up your sleeve.

Mark Twain used the phrase in his semi-autobiographical work Roughing It, from 1872: “I reckon I can’t call that hand. Ante and pass the buck.”

The phrase passed into figurative use some time in the late 1800’s or early 1900’s.

Pass the buck is the likely origin of the phrase “the buck stops here,” associated with President Harry Truman, who had a sign on his desk engraved with the message. It was his way of saying that the ultimate responsibility lay with him, and he would not shirk his duty and responsibility and try to pass it to someone else. However, the plaque was actually a replica that a friend of his had made after seeing such a plague on the desk of a prison warden in Oklahoma.

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