Passing the Buck Slip

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The other day I received a letter that directed me to refer to an enclosed “buck slip.”
I’d never heard the expression, but I figured out that what was meant was a printed insert.

Apparently this term, along with “lift note,” is common in the world of direct mailing:

…there’s really very little difference between a buckslip and a lift note except that a lift note is generally written as a mini-letter. Buckslips can be any sort of additional insert.

I wondered where the expression got its name. Could it be that the buck slip was called that because it was about the size of a dollar bill? Other questions bubbled up. Why is buck another name for dollar? And why does passing the buck mean avoiding responsibility?

Here’s where the questions led.

The word buck to mean a dollar may come from the use of buckskins as articles of trade.

Answer.com’s definition of buckslip (spelled as one word),

a small insert added to a mailing package; it is usually about the size of a dollar bill

implies that the name may derive from the buck/dollar connection.

Merriam-Webster, however, favors a different origin, defining buck slip (two words) as

1. a routing slip used especially in military offices to indicate the persons to whom the attached material is to go and usually the kind of action to be taken with such material


2. an object formerly used in poker to mark the next player to deal or to deal a jackpot, the winner of each jackpot placing the buck in front of him; especially : a buckhorn-handled knife used for this purpose

According to J.W. Keller, author of Draw Poker (1887),

The ‘buck’ is any inanimate object, usually knife or pencil, which is thrown into a jack pot and temporarily taken by the winner of the pot. Whenever the deal reaches the holder of the ‘buck’, a new jack pot must be made.”

According to a site called Dutch’s English Language Oddity Clearing House:

Some card games use a marker called a buck. Players take turns acting as dealer with the buck marking the current dealer. When the buck is passed to the next player, the responsibility for dealing is passed.

The buck slip as routing list explains the expression to pass the buck.

Before email, when someone at work wanted everyone to see the same message, one copy of the message was sent around with a list of recipients. Each recipient checked or crossed off his name and passed it on. The person who passed the buck slip on without checking his name could claim he wasn’t responsible for knowing what was in the memo.

When President Harry S Truman placed a sign that said “The Buck Stops Here” on his desk in the Oval Office, he was assuring his staff that he would take responsibility for all problems that came to his attention.

I don’t know that any of that really explains buck slip as a term for a mailing insert, but it was an interesting exploration.

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4 thoughts on “Passing the Buck Slip”

  1. This does raise an interesting point about understanding your readers. This letter writer is not writing to other marketing specialists (who may know the term) but to a non-marketing-specialist reader. He or she apparently didn’t consider the fact that his or her readers would probably not know this term.

    As shown by your example, using an odd or unfamiliar term can distract readers from the content, thus preventing a person from accomplishing his or her communication goal.

    In all our services, and throughout our training manual and Writing Tips for a Year service, we keep coming back to the idea that a writer, to be effective, needs to understand his audience. I will go so far as to say that understanding one’s readers is the first necessary condition for effective writing and editing.

  2. Jeepers it’s been 3 years and still no answer to my question;

    What is the correct way to write, “there are three two’s in the English language”.

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