The Other Side of the Signboard by Paul Scott

Published September 3, 2011 by Gail Norris in Articles, Parish Magazine

Have you ever been accused of passing the buck? Of course not! I can’t imagine that any of my readers would ever be guilty of shrugging off their responsibilities. But had you ever wondered where this expression comes from?


What does it really mean? Is it to do with a male deer, or does it mean passing a dollar bill around (“Making a fast buck”)? Well, both stags and money come into it. It all goes back to the game of poker. Back in the second half of the nineteenth century, poker was a popular game in the States. The dealer had a lot of responsibility, because if someone had a bad hand, he might accuse the dealer of cheating (and the accusation might take the form of a bullet). Because of this, after each session the deal changed hands. To show that this was happening, a marker was passed to the new dealer. It could be, and it often was, a knife with its handle made of buck’s horn. The marker became known as a buck, and if anyone didn’t want the responsibility of being the dealer, he passed the marker on to another player. In other words, he passed the buck.

Now a starter for ten. Who first said, “The buck stops here”, meaning, “I take the responsibility”? If you said Harry S. Truman, you’re out. In fact, no-one knows for sure who originated the phrase. Perhaps we should allow you half a point, since it was certainly made famous by Truman. In fact, he had it on a sign on his desk in the Oval Office, so that any visitor could see he took his responsibilities seriously.

All this is straightforward. Now for the tough question. The sign that the visitors saw said “The buck stops here.” But what was on the other side of the sign, the side that Truman alone could see? Any guesses? Something inspiring and encouraging, surely? Something like “Judge rightly” or “Govern justly” or even “Make sure they don’t find you out”? No, it was none of these. On the other side of the sign were the words, “I’m fromMissouri”.

What on earth did this mean? Why was it there? Truman was certainly born and brought up inMissouri, but why did he need to be reminded of the fact? The answer is that it comes from a traditional saying: “I’m fromMissouri– show me.” The folks fromMissouriwere notoriously sceptical. They didn’t believe anything unless they were given clear, unmistakable, physical evidence. They were, in a word, doubters.

They weren’t alone in their doubting. There was, for example, the philosopher Descartes, who tried the experiment of doubting absolutely everything. In the end, he found that the only thing he couldn’t doubt was the fact that he was doubting, and on that he built an entire system of philosophy. We may also remember Thomas, the disciple (unfairly known as Doubting Thomas), who wouldn’t believe in the resurrection of Christ until he (Thomas) had actually felt the wounds in Christ’s hands and side. But once he actually saw the wounds (the story doesn’t say whether or not he felt them) he gave one of the most direct and unambiguous verdicts about Jesus: “My Lord and my God!”

So, is doubt a good or a bad thing? Buddha said that “There is nothing more dreadful than the habit of doubt”. On the other hand, Shakespeare said that “Modest doubt is called the beacon of the wise,” and Voltaire added, “Doubt is uncomfortable, certainty is ridiculous.” Perhaps a little doubt is good for us. Anyhow, I’ll take the responsibility for that last statement. For the moment, the buck stops with me.