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TWTS: What is the "buck" and why is it stopping here?

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There are some bucks that are dollars, and there are other bucks that are deer. However, neither are the bucks that stop in “the buck stops here.” And no, that rhyme wasn’t intentional.

So what does “the buck” refer to? That’s exactly what one of our listeners would like to know: “In remarks on the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan, President Biden declared, ‘the buck stops with me.’ Where does this phrase come from?”

The phrase Biden references was actually popularized by another president, Harry S. Truman. Truman had a sign on his desk in the Oval Office that read “The buck stops here” and would occasionally refer to it in speeches.

On December 19, 1952 Truman said, “You know it’s easy for the Monday morning quarterback to say what the coach should’ve done after the game is over. But when the decision is up before you -- and on my desk I have a motto which says, ‘the buck stops here’ – the decision has to be made.”

Truman referenced his motto again the following month in his farewell address: “The president, whoever he is, has to decide. He can’t pass the buck to anybody. Nobody else can do the deciding for him. That’s his job.”

In the mid-1800s, a “buck” referred to a marker used in the game of poker. One of its main functions was to signal whose turn it was to deal. To “pass the buck” was to move the responsibility to perform an action, such as dealing, to the next person.

Truman used “the buck stops here” and “pass the buck” to say he was one who had to make decisions that landed on his desk – he couldn’t pass them on to anyone else.

However, the phrase is now commonly used to take responsibility, regardless of who made the decisions that lead to the outcome. For example, if a football team loses a game, the coach might say “the buck stops here” to take responsibility for the actions of the entire team.

How do you use “the buck stops here”? Let us know at language@michiganradio.org.

Rebecca Kruth is the host of Weekend Edition at Michigan Radio. She also co-hosts Michigan Radio’s weekly language podcast That’s What They Say with English professor Anne Curzan.
Anne Curzan is the Geneva Smitherman Collegiate Professor of English and an Arthur F. Thurnau Professor at the University of Michigan. She also holds faculty appointments in the Department of Linguistics and the School of Education.