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.