Why is a Dollar Called a “Buck”?


Why is a Dollar Called a “Buck”? As with many etymologies, the exact root of
this word is difficult to say with one hundred percent certainty. However, the leading theory is extremely plausible
and backed up by a fair bit of documented evidence. Specifically, it is thought that a dollar
is called a “buck” thanks to deer. One of the earliest references of this was
in 1748, about 44 years before the first U.S. dollar was minted, where there is a reference
to the exchange rate for a cask of whiskey traded to Native Americans being “5 bucks”,
referring to deerskins. In yet another documented reference from 1748,
Conrad Weiser, while traveling through present day Ohio, noted in his journal that someone
had been “robbed of the value of 300 Bucks.” At this time, a buck skin was a common medium
of exchange. There is also evidence that a “buck” didn’t
simply mean one deerskin, but may have meant multiple skins, depending on quality. For instance, skins from deer killed in the
winter were considered superior to those killed in the summer, due to the fur being thicker. It is thought that the highest quality skins
were generally assigned a one to one value with one skin equaling one buck. In contrast, for lower quality skins, it might
take several of them to be valued at a single buck. The specific value for given sets of skins
was then set at trading. In addition, when the skin was from another
animal, the number of skins required to equal a buck varied based on the animal and the
quality of the skins. For instance, there is one documented trade
where six high quality beaver skins or twelve high quality rabbit pelts each equaled one
buck. This use of skins as a medium of exchange
gradually died off over the next century as more and more Europeans moved in and built
towns and cities. Once the U.S. dollar was officially introduced
after the passing of the Coinage Act of 1792, it quickly became the leading item used as
a medium of exchange, but the term “buck” stuck around and by the mid-nineteenth century
was being used as a slang term for the dollar. While it may be tempting to think that the
“buck” in this sense is where we also get the phrase “pass the buck”, most etymologists
don’t think the two are related. The leading theory on the origin of the phrase
“pass the buck” is thought to come from poker, with one of the earliest known references
of the idea of literally passing a buck being found in the 1887 work by J.W. Keller, titled
“Draw Poker”. In it, Keller states: 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. As to why it is then called a buck, it is
thought that may have arisen from the fact that buck-handled knives were once common
and knives were often used as the “buck” in this sense. As for the figurative sense of passing the
buck, this didn’t start popping up until the early twentieth century.

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