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Ducks in a row, part 2

Quack… Thunk. Quack… Thunk.

Dear Word Detective: Back in 2002 you punted (a sports metaphor) on the question of the origin of “having one’s ducks in a row.” You noted that it’s an expression apparently of recent coinage, but several speculations on aquatic waterfowl led to nothing very convincing. I learned once that it’s actually a games metaphor: a “duck” is a pool-hall term for a ball sitting right in front of a pocket — an easy shot. Thus to have one’s ducks in a row is to have all one’s balls sitting lined up in front of pockets, ready to be sunk in series. How do etymologists such as yourself establish the likelihood of such a claim? — Anonymous.

Thanks for an interesting question. To recap for those who missed my original column, “to have one’s ducks in a row” is an idiom meaning to have all one’s preparations done or arranged before beginning an activity or project, and the phrase is thought to have arisen by allusion to a mother duck leading her ducklings in an orderly single file. In my original column I noted that the phrase was first attested in print in 1979, but it has since been found in a Washington Post article from 1932.

The theory tracing the phrase to the game of pool is an interesting one, and “duck” is indeed a pool-hall term for a ball resting at the edge of a pocket (i.e., a “sitting duck”). But the pool theory runs aground, as many such stories do, on a lack of evidence.

Stories tracing phrases now used as general idioms to a specific time, place or practice are only believable if print citations can first be found using the phrase in that specific context. For instance, the theory tracing “the whole nine yards” (meaning “the whole thing”) to the length of aircraft machine-gun ammo belts in World War Two seems eminently reasonable. Yet there has been not a single instance found so far of the phrase being used in print in connection with actual machine guns (and WW II was a very well-documented war), only citations for the phrase in its general slang sense beginning in the late 1960s. Perhaps someday such a citation will be found, but until then the “logic” of the theory counts for nothing.

Similarly, the earliest citation found so far for “ducks in a row” (“We have a world filled today with problems and we are trying to get our economic ducks in a row,” June 1932, Washington Post) clearly has nothing to do with pool. Perhaps the writer first heard it in a poolroom, but until we find an earlier use of the phrase in the context of a pool game (as in “Smith had his ducks in a row and sank them one by one”), the familiar sight of a mother duck and her brood marching in a neat line seems a more reasonable (and much simpler) explanation.

11 comments to Ducks in a row, part 2

  • fxmaker

    Many phrases and idioms come to us from seafaring. I think having one’s ducks in a row might also. Shipbuilders and other craftsmen have bent wood into “splines” using a form fitted with “ducks” to guide the wood being bent. Getting your ducks in a row means you’ve properly fitted the piece.

    Here’s a link to a web site that’s full of ducks :)

  • KenN

    I seem to recall that carnival shooting galleries used to have rows of targets on a belt that pulled them in a row across the back of the booth. Sometimes they were ducks. Shooting them was supposed to be easier because of being in order. Possibly this could be the origin of the term.

  • Hodag194

    I tried duck hunting here in Wisconsin in the late 70’s and at that time a point system was used. Points were assigned to ducks relative to their abundance (or lack there of). One for a mudhen, 5 for a drake mallard and 8 for a hen mallard, for example. Hunters were allowed 8 points a day. However, due to the dark, foggy, rainy conditions that one hunted in, a concession was made for the hunters, they were allowed to keep hunting and exceed the 8 point limit. So you could harvest 2 mudhens and a drake mallard for 7 points and still shoot a hen mallard because you were under the 8 point limit at the time. To enforce this, a game warden would instruct the hunter to put his ducks in a row in the order they were taken. So if you saw a game warden coming your way you had better be careful putting your ducks in a row or you could get a big fine.

  • BikeLane

    I’ll just chime in here (perhaps a little late!) with fxmaker. Years ago I worked in the field of aircraft design, and it was commonly remarked that the phrase originated with ship designer’s needs to properly align their ducks holding a spline in place prior to drawing a contour on a design drawing. This translated to aircraft design, which today uses simplified mathematical models of the old wooden splines to represent the graceful lines of aerodynamic forms. It’s somewhat interesting that this origin is apparently somewhat hard to find on the ‘net, yet I believe it supplies perhaps the most reasonable explanation.

  • UncleMike

    Dear Word Detective: “Having one’s ducks in a row” may also pertain to the bowling game of duck pins where having the “ducks” in a row makes them easier to knock down. I love Hodag194’s explanation but it seems a little strained to me.

  • anitan1

    As an apprenticed shipbuilder, I want to chime in to agree with BikeLane on this. The phrase “ducks in a row” is a direct reference to the drafting of the ships contour line drawings using splines and weights. These splines were VERY long and would be held in place by a set of weights which were called “ducks” due to their shape: each weight was shaped like a duck head and bill. Assuming the spline was properly aligned along the ships contour, the ducks would all be in row representing the curve of the ships contour. At this point, the draftsman could move forward with drawing the line against the spline.

  • Joel Rosenthal

    NB: Rows go across. Ducks go in single FILES. Doubt that one has anything to do with the other. Love your website.

  • Bruce Blinston

    I was fortunate to work for an older designer who worked for Bell Aircraft designing airplanes. When I came across an hour glass shaped, heavy object about 8 inches long with a metal object on one end in a drawer of a drafting table I asked what it was used for. He explained that it was used in laying out curved features in wing and fuselage design of planes. Flexible
    narrow pieces of wood were bent into desired shapes and were then held in place by these heavy objects that were called ducks. Hence, getting your ducks in a row.

  • Aaron

    I’ve heard from Pilots that is a reference to shipbuilding and aircraft design.

  • John A Brown

    I was told a story by my teacher in grammar school about “getting ducks in a row”. (Idlewild Elementary School, Memphis Tennessee, mid 1950s) There was a hunter that needed to bring home a meal for his family and he only had one ball for his gun. (it was a muzzleloader.) He snuck up on 3 ducks on a pond. He was a very smart hunter and used his brain to figure out how to get the most meat for his one ball. The hunter had seen ducks fly away from this pond before and he remembered that they lined up in a row in preparation to take off. So the hunter skillfully and carefully measured out just enough powder to go through all three ducks. While measuring it occurred to him to take away just enough powder so the ball would not completely go through the third duck. He measured the powder and carefully poured it down the barrel. Then he set the patch and ball just right with his ramrod. Next he waited patiently for the ducks to “get in a row”. He held his breath, took careful aim and squeezed the trigger. He killed all three ducks. When cleaning the ducks for cooking, he found his ball in the third duck’s carcass. The lesson in the story was “Even though he only had one bullet, the hunter was able to provide food for his family because he was patient, used his brain and got all of his ducks in a row”.

  • Sandra Leigh

    I have an off-shoot question of this one. Do you perhaps know of an old equivalent? something preferably 11th century or that neighbourhood? I’m working on a novel with a historical setting and want to keep my idioms at least partially accurate.

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