In the culturally referrent 1970s USA TV show "MASH", about the Korean war, character Corporal Klinger acts "crazy", specifically wearing female clothing,

enter image description here

... because he is bucking for a section 8 discharge from the Army. (For non-native speakers, in that era in the US Army, a "section 8" (wiki) discharge was for basically mental problems.)

So, Klinger is making a very large effort (he expends a huge effort on getting and wearing dresses and otherwise pretending to be crazy) pretending to do something (pretending to be crazy) with his goal being to get a (on the face of it) negative thing the discharge in question.

Again, he's deliberately acting in in a way as to try to get something that is undesirable (for his own reasons, he wants it).

This is described universally in English, certainly AmE, as "bucking for" a discharge, "bucking for" a section 8.

It's difficult for me to make other examples of this, but for example, you might say of a kid "are you bucking for punishment?!" (So, the kid, for some sneaky reason, is deliberately acting badly so as to get punished.) Or you can imagine someone in prison "bucking for" solitary (bizarrely, misbehaving to get even more punishment) because - say - the prisoner knows actually food is better in solitary.

My questions,

1) is this one of those annoying single-use phrases? I can't think of any other use of "bucking for _ _", but it's perfectly understood in the military (or, because of MASH, generally) use of "bucking for a discharge". Is it ever used (in this meaning) in any other context? {Note, of course, obviously, "buck" has many other senses, please do not laboriously provide the other senses of "buck".}

2) what is the origin?

3) And finally ... what the heck other phrase or word could you use to describe Klinger's actions? "Klinger is _ _ _ to achieve a section 8." The only other thing I could do is spell it out in full, "Klinger is putting great effort into a ruse/sham where he pretending to do something, even though that course of action would seemingly only bring him negative effects because surprisingly he actually wants the outcome." Is there perhaps a BrE military slang? (Surely not! who would "buck for", as our American friends would have it, LMF? :) )

If you wanted to say "bucking for a mental discharge" without using that slang, I can't really think of anything else. Perhaps "posturing for..." but it's not really right.

PS, I just learned that there's a sense "adjective, US military slang, lowest of a particular rank: a buck private." I had no idea about this. Perhaps it is related.

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    – tchrist
    Commented Aug 2, 2018 at 1:07

9 Answers 9


My research suggests the origin of 'bucking for [something]', military slang for something akin to 'trying very hard to achieve [something]' is as a periphrasis for 'washing your underwear in lye'.

This somewhat startling and perhaps overstated conclusion results from my observation that early military use is associated with 'a thorough washing preparatory to trying to be selected as orderly', and the parallel observation that 'to buck', and so 'bucking', referred to the process of washing and bleaching in lye.

In historical order, the evidence is this. First, the pertinent verb and noun:

buck, v.1
Obs. exc. dial.
1. trans. To steep or boil in an alkaline lye as a first process in buck-washing, or bleaching.

["† buck, v.1". OED Online. March 2016. Oxford University Press. http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/24136 (accessed May 24, 2016).]

The verb with this sense is attested from 1377-1820, from a putative Latin root, "*bucāre to steep in lye, wash clothes". This sense of the verb compares with a noun sense:

buck, n.3
Etymology: In the sense of ‘lye, washing’, evidently belonging to BUCK v.1, from which it is perhaps formed by conversion. ....
3. A quantity of clothes, cloth, or yarn, put through the process of bucking, in buckwashing or bleaching; the quantity of clothes washed at once, a ‘wash’.

["buck, n.3". OED Online. March 2016. Oxford University Press. http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/24125 (accessed May 24, 2016).]

This sense of the noun is attested from 1532-1869.

Now, examining the military use, I found this early attestation of the phrase:


(From The Executive Documents of the House of Representatives for the First Session of the Fifty-Second Congress, 1891-'92. The excerpt is from a report on the Michigan Military Academy datelined 1891.)

Ten years later, the following straightforward definition of the phrase "Bucking for orderly" appears in A Manual for Aspirants for Commissions in the United States Army (Ira Louis Reeves, Hudson-Kimberly Publishing Company, 1901):

enter image description here

Here, 'bucking' is presented in its original sense as the act of thoroughly "cleaning clothing and equipment".

As is usual for slang, the adoption and subsequent dissemination of the phrase relied on an amalgamation of familiar uses, literal, dialectal and slang. In the case of 'bucking for', those included earlier phrases, verbal and nominal, such as 'buck up' ('dress up'),

enter image description here

(From The English dialect dictionary, being the complete vocabulary of all dialect words still in use, or known to have been in use during the last two hundred years; founded on the publications of the English dialect society and on a large amount of material never before printed. Ed. by Joseph Wright. Published in six volumes, 1898-1905.)

and 'a buck' ('a dandy or fop'),

enter image description here

(op. cit.).

These uses of 'buck', with extant dates that dovetail with the use of 'to buck' in the sense of 'to wash and bleach thoroughly',

enter image description here

(op. cit.), lend themselves to the later development of the military slang use of 'bucking for' in the sense of 'striving mightily for advancement'. Other senses of 'to buck' likewise probably played a part: salmon bucking their way upstream to spawn, oxen bucking against a plough, horses bucking to dislodge a pesky rider.

So, for your question 2,

What is the origin?

as given above.

For your question 1,

Is this one of those annoying single-use phrases?

No, it has been and continues to be widely used in the general sense. The SOAP corpus (2001-2012, "22,000 transcripts from American soap operas"), for example, contains the following examples from what the corpus creators call "very informal" English:


For your question 3,

What the heck other phrase or word could you use to describe Klinger's actions?

it seems to me that a wide variety of other phrases, some literal, some figurative, are suited to the same general sense:

  • Klinger was crusading for discharge.
  • Klinger was trying hard to get a discharge.
  • Klinger was angling insanely for a discharge.

None of these seem quite as well suited to describing Klinger's behavior as 'bucking for', however, although crusading has parallel merits.

  • 1
    Great answer—and the 1891 instance of "bucking for orderly" is a most impressive find.
    – Sven Yargs
    Commented May 24, 2016 at 22:23
  • To me, it does seem to be the case that the 1891 example ("The ceremony began...") does indeed seem to directly show the "underwear-lye-washing" origin, or I suppose we could just say meaning, quite clearly. I note that in the next answer, SvenYargs however has decade-earlier military uses, where the term is used just to mean "striving" without a connection to "underwear-lye-washing". So that makes me thoughtful.
    – Fattie
    Commented May 30, 2016 at 13:14
  • @JoeBlow, Sven will have to speak to the 1881 example. I don't have ready access to either the Lighter or the Mathews volumes. My take is that Sven specifically excluded the 1881 quote as military use: "from 1881—and that instance doesn't seem to be military-related". As I understand it, while the military sense clearly owes something to the earlier general sense of 'striving hard', and likewise the later development in the military and out of it, the origin of the military use is more directly 'bucking' in the sense of washing and bleaching, as shown by the 1891 and 1901 quotes.
    – JEL
    Commented May 30, 2016 at 20:25
  • @JoeBlow: Yes, JEL interprets my answer correctly. The Washington, D.C., cabbie-talk from 1881 seems to me to precede any known military use of the term, though Mitford Mathews treats it as the first instance of a meaning that he characterizes as "Esp Army." I think Mathews may have been mistaken in treating the recorded cabbie use from 1881 as a first instance of the military meaning. It seems at least as likely to me that the two uses of bucking arose independently of one another, though their meanings are certainly strikingly similar. In any case, I think JEL's answer is the best.
    – Sven Yargs
    Commented May 30, 2016 at 22:14
  • 1
    I feel that this is the most surprising, amazing, and soundbite-worthy answer so I clicked over the bounty as a token. As always, it's ridiculous o these sites you can't simply "click to reward", obviously I'd also click over 50 token points to the other amazing answers here. Thanks to all! lye -- wtf ?!
    – Fattie
    Commented May 31, 2016 at 3:37

Klinger is striving for a Section 8 because being booted out of the Army for any reason is still preferable in his mind to the alternative of getting shot and killed in Korea.

"Bucking for" is not solely a negative expression. A young person could be working very hard to get straight A's and could be said to be "bucking for" straight A's on his/her report card.

MacMillan Dictionary defines the expression "buck for" as:

buck for something to try hard to get something, especially in your job

Example: "I think she’s bucking for a raise."

  • Hi Kristina thanks, "'Bucking for' is not solely a negative expression" that is a very interesting point, if true as it were. Do you have any examples of this? It is surprising to me but I'm prepared to be convinced. Could it be that in early times (perhaps 1900s ish) it was used in a +ve way. But since MASH essentially it's only been used in the "tricky - knowingly deceptive act" Klinger-sense? What do you think?
    – Fattie
    Commented Apr 7, 2016 at 14:00
  • For example, do you assert that this could be a meaningful usage: "Notice young Jenny is tidying the classroom every day this week, she's normally so messy .. Yes, turns out she's bucking for class president." Type of thing? No? it seems strange to me.
    – Fattie
    Commented Apr 7, 2016 at 14:13
  • 2
    @JoeBlow, I'd perceive "bucking for" as a hard push, pull-out-all-the-stops effort to achieve something. I can see how Klinger could have tainted that expression to become something that required deception and trickery to achieve the desired results but I can honestly say that as a 60's/70's era AmE speaker, I don't think of Klinger when I hear "bucking for". :-) Commented Apr 7, 2016 at 14:14
  • 2
    @JoeBlow, I have heard it used positively in the phrase "bucking for a promotion", which was used in the 1985 movie Fletch.
    – Hellion
    Commented Apr 7, 2016 at 14:53
  • @KristinaLopez fascinating, perhaps you're right
    – Fattie
    Commented Apr 7, 2016 at 17:59

Background on 'bucking'

"Bucking" in the sense of "avidly pursuing" seems to have its origins in U.S. military slang, but it has much broader application today, as Kristina Lopez notes in her answer. The earliest instance of the word used in this sense, according to J.E. Lighter, Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang (1993), is from 1881—and that instance doesn't seem to be military-related, although military use is responsible for the term's widespread adoption in the twentieth century:

buck v ... 3. Esp Army. to strive fervently (for a position, promotion, advantage, etc.), esp. by currying favor.—often used with elliptical complement, e.g., buck for corporal 'strive for a corporal's rank'. {The orig. army phr. seems to have been buck for orderly, explained in 1909 quots.; extended use, often ironic, became common *ca*1940.}

[First three cited examples:] 1881 in [Mitford Mathews, A Dictionary of Americanisms on Historical Principles (1951)] 201: I was bucking very strong for the job. 1900 McManus Soldier Life 104: Many of the old-time orderly-buckers refused to buck at guard-mount, preferring to take their chances on being assigned to the favorite post down below the old Malate church. 1907 Bush Enlisted Man 30: The first sergeant told me to go in and "buck"for orderly. He said the company usually out an orderly "bucker" on their guard detail and generally managed to corral the prize.

The first of these examples is from Henry Hayes & Charles Hayes, A Complete History of the Trial of Guiteau, Assassin of President Garfield (1882):

On cross-examination [of a "colored hack driver, Aquilla Barton"] as to the prisoner's [that is, Guiteau's] appearance at the time of the shooting, the answer was given that the prisoner was not excited.

A. Were you excited? A. Not at all; I was not, but I was bucking very strong for the job; he was a good deal in his senses; he was "flesher" than he is now. [Laughter.]

Prisoner, in a humorous manner: I may state here that I had the first square meal to-day I have had since the 2d of July. [Laughter.]

The original recorded instance of bucking to mean "strive fervently for [a job]" thus appears to involve a Washington, D.C., hack driver's slang usage at the murder trial of Charles Guiteau. A similar instance, also from Washington, D.C., and involving "a colored hackman" appears in "Fought in Front of the Capitol," in the Washington [D.C.] Times (March 5, 1895):

Thomas R. Jamison and Charles Braxton, hackmen, celebrated the adjournment of Congress yesterday by engaging in a lively affray in front of the west side of the Capitol. They were going at each other "hammer and tongs" when Policeman Mendenhall, of the Sixth precinct, appeared and placed both men under arrest. Marshall Brown, a colored hackman, was arrested at the same place by Policeman Whalen while "bucking" for trade or soliciting passengers in violation of law.

The fact that two instances from Washington, D.C., mention bucking in the context of a hack driver trying to get prospective passengers to hire him (in the latter case in violation of a local ordinance against such solicitation) raises the possibility that "bucking" for trade was highly localized slang for "solicitation," and not a precursor for bucking in the military sense of striving for some position or honor. One of the 1909 instances mentioned in Lighter is actually from two years earlier—from Hearings Before the Committee on Military Affairs, United States Senate, Concerning the Affray at Brownsville, Texas, on the Night of August 13 and 14, 1906, volume 2 (1907):

By Senator WARNER: Q. Explain that—what is meant by "bucking for orderly?"—A. The cleanest man on guard when they mount guard in the morning is picked out by the adjutant for the commanding officer's orderly. He does not have to go on guard duty, and is only on duty practically from about 10 in the morning until about 12, and from 2 till about half past 4, and then he is allowed to go to his quarters. It is something they all desire, and the men will clean up, and as the competition becomes closer and closer they get down to even quite small details, and the brass screw that is in the head of the bayonet, that ill be polished, and they will get down to the point, some of these men, where they will even polish their cartridges.

But "bucking for orderly" is explained in detail in the [New York] Sun (April 11, 1897) in an article of that title:



The Rivalry Is Confined to the Spick and Span Men Who Seek Light Duty in the Immediate Service of the Commanding Officer, but the Whole Post Is Intensely Interested.

Washington, April 10.—"Bucking for orderly" is a struggle that takes place at every military post in America every day in the year at guard mount. It is a struggle that inspires the bosoms of the enlisted men with ambition, envy or rage, according to the contest's outcome, and at the isolated posts it gives the men something to live for between pay days. ...

Bucking for orderly is the strife among the men detailed for guard duty to be chosen orderly for the commanding officer by the Adjutant at guard mount. Out of every guard mounted a man is selected by the Adjutant to report to the "beak" or the "old man"—the commanding officer of the post—for messenger duty. ...

Mathews has another interesting definition of buck that might be related to the one in question:

buck v. ... 2. intr. ... b. To buck up to, to "shine up to" a girl, to seek to make a good impression upon. Colloq. 1832 Polit. Examiner (Shelbyville, Ky.) 8 Dec. 4/1, I seed her at church one day fixed up kinder pretty snug, do ... darn my seelskin pumps if I dont buck up to her next Fust day. 1868 PAULDING Book of Vagaries 265 Single gentlemen ... should beware how they 'buck up' to widows.

The shared element here is "seek to make a good impression upon," but no authority I'm aware of has suggested that the "shine up to" meaning from 1832 is directly responsible for the "strive fervently for a position" meaning from 1881.

Answers to the the posted questions

1. Is this one of those annoying single-use phrases?

No, it isn't. The phrase seems not to have originated in military use, although that is certainly where it became widespread. Today, the most common phrase using bucking in the relevant sense appears to be "bucking for a promotion"—which may refer to an upgrade in military rank or to an advance in civilian employment. Other phrases that a Google Books search finds include "bucking for a raise" (where buck for a raise is defined as "To be very determined about getting a salary increase)," "bucking for a job," "bucking for a prize," "bucking for a halo," "bucking for a serious bonus," and "bucking for a spot on Queer Eye for the Straight Guy." There are many nonmilitary instances.

2. What is the origin?

The answer is uncertain. In military use, the earliest phrase associated with this type of bucking was "bucking for orderly"—trying to look sharp in hopes of being selected to fill the easy job of commanding officer's orderly for the day. The hack driver's use of bucking in the sense of striving to be assigned a desirable task 16 years before the first known military use clouds the picture. The 1895 example of "bucking for trade" suggests, however, that "bucking" as "soliciting" may have been local Washington, D.C., slang among cabbies and policemen, and not a direct predecessor of "bucking" in the "bucking for orderly" sense. The use of "bucking up to [a person]" in a somewhat similar sense to "bucking for [a position]"—namely, to seek to make a good impression—makes the situation even foggier.

3. What other phrase or word could you use to describe Klinger's actions?

There are many alternative ways of expressing the idea of trying to achieve a particular result through assiduous effort: "aiming [or shooting or gunning] for," "scheming for," "making a play for," "intriguing for," "going all out for," "concocting elaborate designs for," etc. All of them have slightly different meanings, though, and none of them is an exact replacement for "bucking for."

  • It's an amazing answer I've been reading daily. For me the core tension is, YEL has a 1891 example with a direct "underwear-lye-washing" connection; but here SvenY has found military uses a decade earlier, with no such "underwear-lye-washing" connection. I think the overriding question about the term now is how "real" is the "underwear-lye-washing" origin. Is bucāre indeed the final origin here?
    – Fattie
    Commented May 30, 2016 at 13:21
  • There is another meaning of "bucking" (a form of torture) which was forbidden as a method of punishment by the US Army on 03 June 1853 books.google.com/…
    – DavePhD
    Commented May 31, 2016 at 15:22
  • @DavePhD: Yes—the punishment is described in The Life of Billy Yank: The Common Soldier of the Union, though without any explanation for why it was called bucking. As JEL's answer suggests, there are many definitions of buck and bucking going back to the 1800s (at least), and that fact makes for a tangled web of possible etymological influences and complicated lineages.
    – Sven Yargs
    Commented May 31, 2016 at 16:24

I'll offer a different theory origin.

The phrase is a generalization of the phrase

bucking for freight

From the October 1857 article History of the Express Business:

"Bucking for freight" as it was called, was carried to perfection by them, and it is almost incredible the pains any one of them, from the " boss" to the boy, would take to obtain even so small a matter as a twenty-five cent parcel

(quotation marks and italics in original text).

From the 1858 History of the Express Companies: and the origin of American Railroads 2nd edition :

page 98:

Then, an Express driver was as valuable and important as ever the stageman had been in his palmy days, and to his efforts in “bucking for freight” his employers were indebted for a very considerable amount of their patronage.

page 110:

They were gentlemanly, and very successful in bucking for freight.

And from a July 1876 letter published in the Express Gazette:

With a family of a wife, one child, and a mother-in-law, which will secure purity, piety, efficiency and economy, a strict regard for the representatives of the opposition in "bucking" for freight ; with a C.O.D. record second to no office in this section ; with simplicity and frugality in your public affairs, and my private affairs; with a...

  • 1
    1857 is a very early reference indeed. I have to wonder if these folks were indeed using it the same way as we see the military later using it, in fragments that have survived to us, or indeed did the railroad men use it first? If I'm not mistaken this is the earliest modern-style usage presented here! It's interesting that, today, if you asked anyone interested in words about it they'd raise the "probably military" possibility first. Maybe it was entirely a railroad thing for decades - - after all, so many words came from the railroad milieu.
    – Fattie
    Commented May 30, 2016 at 13:24
  • @JoeBlow I don't think it is railroad, but instead horse and wagon. I think it is the same meaning: struggling for freight customers, competing for freight business. I'll add another "bucking for freight" reference from 1876.
    – DavePhD
    Commented May 30, 2016 at 14:59
  • @JoeBlow "bucking" is what horses do, so people delivering freight by horse are more likely to have derived the term from the horse-related meaning than the washing clothes meaning.
    – DavePhD
    Commented May 30, 2016 at 15:16
  • @JoeBlow For example this 1852 reference has the sentence: "Among the vicious tricks which they are thus allowed to acquire is that of " bucking," a mode of emptying the saddle practised also, I believe, by the Australian horses, and certainly a most expeditious one." books.google.com/…
    – DavePhD
    Commented May 30, 2016 at 15:19
  • 1
    +1 This is a very interesting answer, and the meaning of bucking that it discusses (which seems to amount to "competing") might be the source of the Washington, D.C. hack drivers' sense of bucking (meaning "soliciting or lobbying hard to be hired") mentioned in citations in my answer from 1881 and 1895. Anyway, nice job.
    – Sven Yargs
    Commented May 31, 2016 at 4:52

Its slang put you brought up prision bucking for solitary, in prision bucking means the oppisite of trying to obtaian something. For example im bucking work call,or if some is gonna jack or take something from you.Im bucking the jack..if someone is called out to fight and doesnt he bucked the callout any who its no answer just insight


The origins of buck are generally Germanic. The word as a noun has referred to a deer, typically male. As a verb, it appears to have emerged metaphorically (in the 19th C?) to denote the kind of violently vertical leaping of an animal being pursued.

To buck for something - say, status or rank - suggests striving or "leaping" to achieve it.

To say that Cpl. Klinger is bucking for a Section 8 is humorously ironic, in that he is "striving" for what should be an ignominious dismissal from the Army. Of course that's exactly what he wants, as has been pointed out elsewhere in this thread.

A less comically-fraught expression might be that he is heading for a Section 8, although a number of the colorfully colloquial utterances contributed already might do as well.

  • "To buck for something - say, status or rank - suggests striving or "leaping" to achieve it." Hmm..... Rob, that's a really interesting theory, and it "sounds right", but do you have a basis to believe this? (Other than a judgement call?)
    – Fattie
    Commented Apr 7, 2016 at 20:21
  • 1
    @JoeBlow - I wish I could nail down the verb form. The etymological "usual suspects" dutifully run throgh boc, buc, etc., and then become almost giddy on the noun form colloquially meaning the US dollar - one source going on about how the "buckskin" was a quantifiable medium of trade with Native Americans in the 18th c, etc. In the absence of a good Latinate word for "jump" - cf. "bucking bronco" - that sounds or looks like "buck," I feel that the field is left to reasonable, informed scholarly conjecture. (Or a wild-assed guess.)
    – Rob_Ster
    Commented Apr 8, 2016 at 1:06

There are several similar phrases:

  • Cruising for a Bruising

for one, and 'looking' or 'bucking' for a f****** would be another.

  • Hey Jon, "There are several similar phrases" ... fantastic, what are they?! :) "cruising for a bruising" I think more just means: the person is (foolishly) about to be punished. That's totally different from deliberately acting a certain way because you (for some tricky reason) want the outcome.
    – Fattie
    Commented Apr 7, 2016 at 13:51
  • the rest aren't as good - they all meaning trying to do yourself in, so you could have 'flapping for a crapping', 'searching for a lurching', but like i say, they're not as good
    – JMP
    Commented Apr 7, 2016 at 14:12

Another possibility for Klinger's actions is that he is trying to:

buck the system

This is where somebody disagrees with the (political) nature of a regime, and so takes actions that might seem irrational in order to bring attention to the problem.

The origins have been pretty much discussed.

So he is rebelling against the army. There are numerous other examples, Joseph Heller 'Catch 22', women protesting to get the vote in England, etc...


Alternative phrase: Flouting military disipline

Military disipline: http://www.dlsu.edu.ph/offices/osa/rotc/pdf/ms1/military-courtesy.pdf


to break or ignore (a law, rule, etc.) without hiding what you are doing or showing fear or shame.

"Flout." Merriam-Webster.com. Merriam-Webster, n.d. Web. 7 Apr. 2016.

  • 1
    um, "what the heck other phrase or word could you use to describe Klinger's actions?" Klinger is _ _ _ to achieve a section 8. Klinger is flouting military disipline to achieve a section 8.
    – Phil Sweet
    Commented Apr 7, 2016 at 20:54

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