What Does the Buck Stops Here Mean?

The phrase the buck stops here is a classic idiom, in that it’s difficult to figure out the saying’s meaning just by looking at the individual words that comprise it. Does it have to do with money? The act of opposition or resistance? A male deer or antelope, or perhaps a rodeo bronco, pausing in their tracks to say hello?! Hint: It’s actually none of the above. Let’s uncover the definition of this common idiomatic expression.

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What Does the Buck Stops Here Mean?

This popular phrase is used to indicate a full acceptance of responsibility. When someone says the buck stops here—or the buck stops with me, another form of the expression—they’re promising to take necessary action or to make a decision that needs to be made. They’re pledging not to pass the responsibility of ending inaction or indecision onto someone else. In other words, they’re vowing to step up and do what needs to be done in a particular situation. 

Here are some example sentences using the buck stops here and the other common version of the expression the buck stops (with someone):

  • No one wanted to volunteer to make treats for Teacher Appreciation Week, and it seemed like the PTA meeting would go on forever. Finally, I raised my hand, said “the buck stops here,” and offered to make several dozen vanilla cupcakes with chocolate frosting. 
  • My boss was so upset and confused when we lost the account. I told him that when it comes to that client the buck stops with me, and I accepted the blame for the outcome. 
  • The buck stops here: I’m tired of waiting for the neighborhood association to clean up the common garden spaces, so I’m going to go out there and do it myself. 
  • It’s time for someone to say the buck stops here when it comes to the coronavirus pandemic and do what needs to be done to stop the spread of COVID. 

The Etymology of the Expression

U.S. President Harry S. Truman popularized the phrase the buck stops here. However, he didn’t coin it. While we don’t know who did, or when it first came into use, we do know that it derives from another expression: pass the buck. This saying appears to have originated from poker during the American frontier era. 

At the time, during the game, a marker or counter was used to indicate the player whose turn it was to deal. In the frontier days, this marker was typically a knife with a buckhorn handle, and thus the marker came to be known as a “buck.” (A knife may have been chosen because cheating was common; the weapon was likely a not-so-subtle way of reminding players of the consequence of breaking the rules. Note that nowadays, typically when poker is played, there’s a designated dealer with a dealer button, and “bucks” are no longer used.) If you didn’t want to be the dealer, and wanted to give that responsibility to the next player, you would “pass the buck” to the person beside you at the table. Pass the buck also came to mean “passing blame.” From this expression, its antonym, the buck stops here, was born to indicate an acceptance of responsibility and to say that the responsibility, or blame, won’t be passed onto anyone else. 

If you look up the word buck in the dictionary today, you’ll see that in addition to the definitions alluded to at the start of this article, the entry also includes the meanings established by these two phrases: an object formerly used in the game of poker to mark the dealer, and responsibility.  

Truman’s Famous Sign

How exactly did President Harry Truman make the phrase popular? He had a sign featuring it on his desk throughout his time in the Oval Office, which was often photographed and which he often referred to in public statements and speeches to the American people. For example, in an address he gave at the National War College in 1952, he said, “You know, it’s easy for the Monday morning quarterback to say what the coach should have 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.” He also used the phrase pass the buck in his farewell address, saying, “The president—whoever he is—has to decide. He can’t pass the buck to anybody. No one else can do the deciding for him. That’s his job.”

The sign was made in the Federal Reformatory at El Reno, Oklahoma. The story goes that Fred A. Canfil, a friend of President Truman and then United States Marshal for the Western District of Missouri, saw a sign with the phrase while visiting the Reformatory and asked if a similar one could be made for Mr. Truman. It was, in the fall of 1945. It’s possible, and in fact likely, according to historians, that the original sign that inspired the president’s copy was on the desk of Colonel A.B. Warfield, a retired army officer. A photo from 1942 shows Warfield at his desk with a sign featuring the phrase. At the very least, the photo confirms that President Truman didn’t coin the phrase himself.

The sign on President Truman’s desk was double-sided. The reverse side featured the text I’m from Missouri—Mr. Truman was born in Lamar, MO. It’s a shortened form of the expression I’m from Missouri, you’ve got to show me, which led to MO’s nickname of the “show-me state.”

The sign has been on display at the Harry S. Truman Library and Museum in Independence, Missouri, since 1957. It’s approximately two-and-a-half inches by 13 inches and is made of painted glass mounted on a walnut base. President Truman was the 33rd president of the United States, serving from 1945 to 1953. 

Understanding Idioms

As mentioned above, an idiom is an expression with an intended meaning that typically can’t be fully understood just by looking at the words that comprise it. It doesn’t mean what it appears to mean. Even if you’ve never heard the term idiom, you have most likely heard many idiomatic expressions. Here are just a few of the most common idioms used today:

You’re in hot water.
His boss gave him the ax.
It’s time to face the music.
You’ve hit the nail on the head.

If you took the first example literally, you’d think it was describing a person standing in a bathtub full of hot water, perhaps. But the expression is actually used to describe a person who’s in trouble. Likewise, rather than literally being handed a tool for chopping wood, if you get the ax from your boss, it means you’re getting fired. It’s time to face the music means that it’s time to come to terms with the consequences of your actions. And when someone has hit the nail on the head, they’ve gotten an answer exactly right or done something exactly as it should have been done.

As you now know, when someone says the buck stops here, they aren’t saying that a male deer is taking a quick break from their adventures, rather that they’re accepting responsibility in a given situation. Other examples of idioms include beating a dead horse and the show must go on; learn the meanings of many more idioms here.

Summary

When someone says the buck stops here, they’re saying that they accept ultimate responsibility, and that they won’t pass that responsibility onto anyone else. It can mean they’re taking an action or making a decision in a situation marked by inaction and indecision. It can also mean they’re accepting blame. While the phrase became popular thanks to President Harry S. Truman and his desk sign at the White House that featured it, he did not coin the expression. We don’t know who did, but we do know that it is a derivation of the phrase pass the buck, which originated from poker and means to shift responsibility to someone else or to pass blame to another person.