Stupid Question ™
May 8, 2003
By John Ruch
Q: Why do ducks get such a bad rap—dead duck, lame duck, etc.?
A: Hey, it’s not being a duck that’s bad—it’s being dead or lame that sucks.
But I must confess that “duck” does carry a lot of other negative connotations. Being called any sort of animal is, in general, not good.
Still, there was a golden era in England, starting in the early 1800s, in which “duck” meant something exemplary in quality. As in, “I say, that’s a duck of a cricket bat you’ve got there, old man.” Nobody knows why the English came up with this, or half the other crazy things they say, either.
Within 50 years, US slang had managed to twist “duck” into meaning a weirdo or idiot, for reasons that are also not clear, aside from typical American meanspiritedness. It later became generalized to simply mean “person” or “fellow,” as the “Oxford English Dictionary” likes to put it. So it’s a fairly neutral term these days (“lucky duck,” etc.).
But then there’s also “duck” meaning a ship or plane so screwed up it won’t move, and “duck” meaning a zero score in a cricket game (an allusion to the round shape of a duck’s egg, much as we say “goose egg” in the US).
My dictionary tells me “duck” also once meant “a British solider of the Bombay Presidency.” What does this mean? I don’t know, except that much of Britian is as crazy as Tony Blair’s wife.
“Dead duck” showed up in the 1830s, before all this vicious nonsense, and originally meant something closer to what “lame duck” means today—someone out of date or powerless. It came from political slang. The first know written use of it refers it back to a supposed pre-existing phrase: “Never waste powder on a dead duck.”
The modern meaning of someone doomed dates to the World War II era.
“Lame duck” is much older, from the mid-1700s, when it was originally business slang for someone who went bankrupt playing the stock market. Nobody really knows why, but something waddling and flapping about in pain seems like a pretty congruous image. Those old British stock market dudes had an obsession with animal terms—“lame duck” often showed up with the “bull” and “bear” expressions we still use today.
“Lame duck” eventually became a generic term for a deadbeat and became popular in US slang that way in the late 1800s.
Meanwhile, back in England, it developed a much more literal meaning of someone crippled, weak, aging or otherwise not at the top of their abilities. From there, in the early 1900s US, it developed its modern political meaning of an elected official left relatively powerless because they’ve lost an election or won’t be running again.
Duckness certainly isn’t all bad. It often refers to ease—“like a duck to water”—and is still a term of endearment (“ducky”). There’s also “duck soup,” meaning something extremely easy or sure to succeed—though even that eventually developed the meaning of someone who was an easy mark for a con.