Words: Buck

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The Independent Online

"This is disgraceful and dishonourable," cried David Clark, MP. "He is trying to pass the buck on to civil servants." The buck-passer was Nicholas Soames, and the buck he was said to be passing was the responsibility for the Gulf War Syndrome scandal, but I bet neither he nor Dr Clark knew what a buck really was. It's a long trail from 19th-century West Coast America to the committee rooms of the House of Commons.

In the San Francisco of Mark Twain's Rough Times, published in 1872, there's an engaging character called Scottie who tries to arrange a funeral with a minister from Boston or somewhere and can't understand the minister's rather fancy way of talking.

"I can't neither trump nor follow suit," he says. "You've raised me out. Ante and pass the buck." Scottie was talking the language of draw poker, but I don't think Mark Twain had too strong a grasp of the game, because as I understand it the buck should have been passing from Scottie to the minister, not the other way round, meaning it would then have been up to the minister to take over. And the buck? According to Brewer's Phrase and Fable, it may have been a buckskin-handled knife, "placed in front of a player to indicate he was the next dealer".

Anyway, there was nothing disgraceful or dishonourable about what Scottie was talking about. It wasn't until later that it became a metaphor for a certain sort of bad behaviour. Eric Partridge said that in the First World War it was the same as "telling the tale", which meant explaining away one's military delinquencies; and that passing the buck was already a common term among paper-shifting civil servants in the 1930s. I also learn from Partridge that as well as being a male deer a buck had at one time or another also meant a dandy, a debauchee, a cuckold and even "a hanger-about at omnibus stands". Don't ask why.