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April 28th, 2004

The buck stops here / bring and take / house vs. home

by Barbara Wallraff

Bonnie Wallman, of Redlands, Calif., writes, “What in the world does ‘The buck stops here’ mean? ‘The dollar stops here’? Why would that be a mark of leadership?”

Dear Bonnie: At first glance, that saying does suggest a less than admirable leadership style—say, behavior we might associate with Enron and Tyco executives. But the “buck” in the saying isn’t a dollar. It’s something that was formerly used in poker to show whose turn it was to deal—who was in charge. The Web site for the Truman Presidential Museum and Library explains that “in frontier days” this was often “a knife with a buckhorn handle.” Hence the name.

“Pass the buck” was an earlier expression, and “The buck stops here” derives from it. President Harry S. Truman popularized the saying when he kept a sign that bore it on his desk in the White House. A friend of Truman’s had the sign made for him at the Federal Reformatory in El Reno, Oklahoma. Isn’t that a good handicraft project for people behind bars!

Jim Beatty, of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, writes, “Can you please give a succinct rule on the use of ‘bring’ and ‘take’? It grates on my linguistic sensibilities when I hear people use these words interchangeably. For instance, a young salesperson told me that with a particular computer program I could record large files and ‘bring’ them to my friends.”

Dear Jim: The succinct rule about “bring” and “take” is that “bring” means motion toward the speaker (“Will you please bring me those files?”) and “take” means motion away from the speaker (“I’m going to take them to my friends”). Unfortunately, like most succinct rules, this one is an oversimplification. Which word should you use when you carry something with you? What about when you’re not talking about yourself?

If the rule about motion toward or away from you doesn’t apply, “bring” is the right word to use for motion toward the focus of what you’re speaking of, and “take” for motion away from the focus. It’s not always clear what the focus is, however. So sometimes the words really are interchangeable. Consider: “I’m going to a meeting out of town, and I want to bring—or take—the files with me.”

Chuck Gridley, of Delmar, N.Y., writes, “I have always thought that a ‘house’ was a building, and a ‘home’ the emotional attachment a person has to the place he lives. I have heard news reporters refer to ‘an abandoned home’ or ‘a demolished home.’ Isn’t that inaccurate and incorrect usage?”

Dear Chuck: “House” and “home” are another pair of words about which the succinct rule is fine as far as it goes, but it doesn’t tell the whole story. You’re right about the basic distinction; anyone who has trouble with it need only think of the old saws “A house is not a home” and “Home is where the heart is.” And I agree with you that it would be better to call an abandoned or demolished building a “house.” But Chuck? I have no idea whether you live in a single-family house, a townhouse, a condo, an apartment, or an RV—so if I refer to where you live as your “home,” I hope you’ll forgive me.

© Copyright 2003 by Barbara Wallraff. Reprints require prior permission. All rights reserved.

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