Passing the Buck, Hunting Season – Michigan Things

by K.M. Zahrt

It’s that time again. Yup. You guessed it: election season. Time to pass the buck. What’s that you say? It’s deer hunting season? Okay. Let’s see. Whether you’re for or against deer hunting, I’m sure you’ve heard and used some form of the now cliche phrase “to pass the buck.” If not, here’s a cartoon that both illustrates how the idiom works and how it’s long been tied to lame-duck politicians:

EPSON scanner image

Photo Credit: Mark Steiner

Aside from pumpkin lattes and snickerdoodles, aside from apple picking and pie making, this time of year makes me wonder from whence the literal meaning came. You may have heard that this phrase came from frontier days of trading buckskins and that it has Michigan roots. That’s what I’ve heard, anyway. I plunged into the wild (the Internet) to hunt for answers (at etymonline.com). Here’s what I found:

“Meaning ‘dollar’ is 1856, American English, perhaps an abbreviation of buckskin, a unit of trade among Indians and Europeans in frontier days, attested in this sense from 1748. […] Perhaps originally especially a buck-handled knife. The figurative sense of ‘shift responsibility’ is first recorded 1912.”

We’re halfway there. But, does it have Michigan roots? Let’s see: “Indians and Europeans trading in frontier days”? That sounds familiar. Maybe in some distant past in some place like Detroit. Wait a minute — maybe, just maybe — if I lose my nasally Midwestern accent and say it more like deh-TWAH? Yes, that’s the ticket.

So, naturally, I turned to Dittrich Furs’ website. I have every reason to trust them — for two reasons actually: (1) they’re “the oldest family-owned retail business in Detroit, and (2) they’re an accredited business by the Better Business Bureau. Here’s what I found under “A History of the Fur Industry in Detroit”:

“For nearly six decades, Detroit was under [French] rule, but, as a result of the French and Indian War, the town became a British possession in the fall of 1760. Early in the spring of 1761, English traders began to arrive at Detroit. The English preferred a more organized approach to trade than did the French. Included in these new regulations was a list of prices for furs. […] For the next forty years the prices for goods in Detroit were quoted in terms of beavers or bucks — a buck was a buckskin, the hide of one large, prime, male deer. The British decreed that one beaver pelt was worth one good buckskin or one small buckskin and one doeskin. One small beaver was worth one marten or two raccoons, while one large beaver might be worth as much as six raccoons. With the beaver or the buck (from which evolved the American slang term for a dollar) as the basic medium of exchange, a whole list of prices was set on various commodities[…]”

Bingo! It’s confirmed. And, if you’re like me, you’re probably wondering what other media of exchange I might legally hunt or trap in the woods in my backyard this hunting season. The Michigan DNR boasts a handy list that includes monetary marvels such as:

  • Cottontail Rabbit (Cottontail is the Cadillac of rabbits.)
  • Snowshoe Hare (Snowshoe is name brand. No knock-offs please.)
  • Ruffed Grouse (But what about the sharp-tailed kind?)
  • Sharp-tailed Grouse (Yes, good.)
  • Squirrel (Fox, Gray, and Black? Check, check, check.)
  • Wild Turkey (On the rocks please.)
  • Woodcock (No comment. Moving on…)

In conclusion, to close the loop on this post, whether you’re for or against deer hunting, know this: “It’s a Michigan thing!”

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