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Wednesday, May 30, 2012

The Buck Stops Here



GET READY:

1. Can you guess the meaning of this saying?
2. Do you ever try to get out of doing your job?

READ THIS:

James sees his student, a boy named George, who has been studying the life of American president Harry Truman.

James: Georgy-porgy!
George: Hi, James. Hey, I'm glad I saw you. Got time for a question?
James: Sure. What's up?
George: I was just reading about President Truman, and I saw a picture of him with a sign on his desk that said, "The buck stops here."
James: Oh, yeah. That's pretty famous.
George: So, what does it mean?
James: Well, there's another expression, "to pass the buck." It probably comes from poker, something about changing the dealer.
George: So...?
James: So, when the dealer changed, one dealer would "pass the buck" to the next.
George: I'm still not following you.
James: Patience, George! From this idea of "passing the buck" in poker, the phrase came to refer to the idea of "shifting responsibility," not always in a good way. So in business for example, when someone says, "That's not my job; ask so-and-so," we say he's "passing the buck."
George: OK, I'm starting to get it. So Harry Truman was saying that he had the ultimate responsibility, right?
James: That’s right. As the man at the top, he had no one to "pass the buck" to, so it stopped with him.
George: Got it! Thanks, James.
James: Sure. Phew! That was a tough one!
George: But I knew you could do it!

NOTES:

The best student is the one who goes beyond the assignment.

Often, while studying a particular topic, we encounter words or expressions that, while not essential to understanding the topic we are studying, will enlarge our understanding of English language and culture in general. It's good to dig deep, past what is required, to find gems of greater meaning.

More notes:
  • Georgy-porgy!: James makes a joke with George's name. This comes from a rhyme: "Georgy Porgy, puddin' and pie/Kissed the girls and made them cry..."
  • something about changing the dealer: There are several theories on this. Some say the dealer had a buck knife (a type of hunting knife) in front of him; others say it was buckshot (something used in a shotgun). Whatever it was, it was referred to as the "buck" that would be passed to the next dealer.
  • Phew!: This is how we write the sound made when someone exhales noisily; here it means James is relieved.

PRACTICE:

Some people think that the term "passing the buck" is based on the meaning of "buck" as a slang term for a kind of American paper money. Below I have listed the nicknames of six kinds of American paper money. Match each one to the amount it describes.

1. buck
2. C-note
3, double sawbuck
4. fin
5. grand
6. sawbuck

a. $1
b. $5
c. $10
d. $20
e. $100
f. $1000

QUESTIONS FOR DISCUSSION OR WRITING:

If you can, try to talk about these questions in English with a friend. If not, try writing your answers.

1. What would people think of a leader who tried to "pass the buck"? Has anyone you trusted ever "passed the buck"? If so, what happened?
2. Have you ever been ultimately responsible for something, with no one to "pass the buck" to? If so, how did it make you feel?
3. Do you know the story of "Georgy Porgy, puddin' and pie/Kissed the girls and made them cry..."? Look it up. How do you feel about "Georgy Porgy"? Would YOU want to be called this?

ANSWERS TO THE PRACTICE:

1. buck: (a) $1; No one is sure why a dollar is called "a buck" (and 50 d0llars "50 bucks" etc.), but it may come from the days when hunters used the skin of a male deer--a buck--as a kind of money.
2. C-note: (e) $100; "c" is the first letter in Latin words relating to 100 (like a century=100 years). You may even hear "century note."
3. double sawbuck: (d) $20; see "sawbuck" below; 20 is 2 x 10.
4. fin: (b) $5; in Yiddish (a language related to both German and Hebrew), "five" is "finf." So in English, "fin" is close enough.
5. grand: (f) $1000; the word "grand" can mean "great, elegant," etc. So to have a thousand dollars would be "grand"! It's also sometime abbreviated to "G" or "gee," so "My car cost thirty gees" means it cost $30,000.
6. sawbuck: (c) $10; people who cut trees or wood sometimes stand it up on a cross-shaped stand to cut it; this is called a "sawbuck." And the cross-shape (X) is the Roman numeral for "10."

This lesson is ©2012 by James Baquet. You may share this work freely. Teachers may use it in the classroom, as long as students are told the source (URL). You may not publish this material or sell it. Please write to me if you have any questions about "fair use."

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