Pass the Buck - Meaning, Origin and Usage

Are you going to get in trouble at work? You could always take the dishonorable route and dodge the blame; just "pass the buck" to someone else on the team, and you'll get off scot-free.

This post unpacks everything you need to know about the idiom, its origin, and it's meaning.

Pass the Buck Meaning

To "pass the buck" means that you're avoiding responsibility by passing it onto someone else. The phrase can also have the meaning of appointing someone else to take charge of something.

The phrase can also mean holding someone accountable for a situation that you need to address. However, the most common use of the words is in business and politics, describing people's actions passing blame to others.

Pass the Buck Example Usage

"When the boss asked Kelly if she knew why the fundraiser results were so poor, she decided to pass the buck to Melinda to avoid responsibility."

"I'm going to have to find someone to pass the buck to on this one; I don't deserve the blame."

"Passing the buck to other people means that you fail to take responsibility for the outcome."

"Gary always takes the praise, but when things fall apart, he likes to pass the buck to others?

"Are you going to pass the buck for the project's failure or take responsibility for the results?"

Pass the Buck Origin

"Pass the buck" is an American slang term first appearing in American conversation and print in the late 1800s. "Buck" is a slang word for the dollar, but that's nothing to do with this idiom.

A buck is also an item used in poker, a popular sport gaining traction with the public in the early 19th century. In the early, lawless days of gambling in the United States, many games would end in fights or in suspected cheating which could end up with the players sometimes killing each other in retribution.

The dealer would change after every few hands to ensure no foul play to keep the game fair. The next player in line to deal the deck would receive a marker to officially designate them as the next in line to deal the cards.

The object would sometimes be a knife with a handle made from buckhorn. So, it wasn't long before players started to dub it "the buck," telling the other player to pass the buck as their turn to deal arrived.

The earliest use in print comes from the Weekly New Mexican, July 1865:

They draw at the commissary and poker after they have passed the 'buck.'

The Californian newspaper "The Oakland Tribune" printed the following in May 1902:

'When the public or the Council "pass the buck" up to me, I am going to act.'

The most renowned use of the phrase comes from former President Harry Truman, who used "the buck stops here."

Phrases Similar to Pass the Buck

  • Skip town.
  • Dodge the question.
  • Avoid confrontation.

Phrases Opposite to Pass the Buck

  • Take ownership.
  • Admit to everything.
  • Shoulder the burden.

What is the Correct Saying?

  • Pass the buck.
  • Passing the buck.
  • Passed the buck.

Ways People May Say Pass the Buck Incorrectly

Some people may use the phrase incorrectly. "Pass the buck" doesn't mean to pass someone money or objects; it refers to responsibility and accountability.

Acceptable Ways to Phrase Pass the Buck

You can use "pass the buck" in social and professional conversations. You'll use the term when referring to how you want to pass responsibility to someone else or when describing someone else's actions of avoiding responsibility. The phrase has both lighthearted and serious tones to suit all themes of conversation.

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