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shameless pleading

Duck soup

Whatever it is, I’m against it.

Dear Evan: I am a law student at Hamline University School of Law, and as a research assignment for a professor, I am trying to track down the etymology of the phrase “duck soup,” meaning something easy or easily done. Any help you can offer will be greatly appreciated. — Bryan D. Bourn, via the Internet.

It’s not in my nature to question anything a lawyer (even a fledgling lawyer) tells me, but are you absolutely certain that you’ve got that assignment right? Maybe I watched too many episodes of the old “Paper Chase” TV series, but it’s a bit difficult to picture old Professor Whatsisname (you know, the cranky but lovable character played by John Houseman) ordering a trembling student to investigate the origin of “duck soup.” Then again, during my own tenure as a paralegal at a major law firm years ago, I witnessed a conference room full of high-priced corporate attorneys buttering and devouring dozens of English muffins in an attempt to develop a legal definition of “nooks and crannies,” so I suppose anything is possible in the wild and wacky world of the law.

Unfortunately, not everything is possible in the world of English etymology, and a search for the origins of “duck soup” soon runs aground on a simple lack of evidence. According to The Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang, the phrase “duck soup” first appeared in a newspaper cartoon drawn by T.A. Dorgan in 1902, and showed up again in a work by someone named H.C. Fisher in 1908. (That second citation may interest your professor. On page 35 of “A. Mutt,” we find “Attorney Shortribs announced that it would be duck soup to clear their client.”)

Not only is the precise origin of “duck soup” unclear, but I’m afraid that the original logic of the phrase remains obscure as well. Is “duck soup” easy because ducks are easy to shoot (as in “sitting duck”), or because ducks are very greasy and thus easily rendered into soup? Or is the phrase a play on the fact that any spot of water with a resident duck is already “duck soup”? Your guess is as good as mine. The classic 1933 Marx Brothers film “Duck Soup” (probably responsible for boosting the popularity of the phrase quite a bit) begins with a shot of ducks paddling around in a soup cauldron. Perhaps you can convince your professor to arrange a showing of the film in class. I’ll bet there’s a clue in there somewhere.

 

2 comments to Duck soup

  • Christopher

    It appears that the phrase “duck soup” had its origin in the Klondike Gold Rush (1896-1899). Presumably during the Gold Rush, many prospectors ate the local natives’ fare. Even today, the native peoples of Alaska still shoot ducks, whenever they can, and make soup from them. Native cooking was simple, and the prospectors apparently made a little joke about it. From Marshall P. Wilder’s book Smiling ’round the World (1908), page 53:

    “Captain Porter was a delightful raconteur and entertained us on several occasions with stories of his sojourn in the frigid zone. His tales of Eskimo dainties, especially a duck soup, where the bird is put in for cooking not only undressed but unplucked, made us glad that there were no Eskimo cooks on board.” [http://books.google.com/books?id=oKWpCEyJw7kC&pg=PA53#v=onepage&q&f=false]

    The belief that Inuits (“Eskimos”) make duck soup by boiling ducks whole, without even plucking them, has had a very long life: it was being repeated in the British newspaper the Telegraph as late as 1992 in an article titled “Dressed to kill: Hunting with the Eskimos of Holman Island”. According to the article, Eskimos eat “boiled duck and grease soup flavored with feathers.” [See: Valerie Alia and Simone Bull, Media and Ethnic Minorities (2005), p. 46. http://books.google.com/books?id=yuHrQQekQRAC&pg=PA46#v=onepage&q&f=false

    (Of course, for centuries the standard method for removing feathers from a chicken was to dip the bird's body into a pot of boiling water; this blanching made removing the feathers easier. The Inuits merely applied the method to ducks.)

    The phrase "duck soup" apparently came to mean anything that was easily done:

    (1) Sidney M. Logan's report from Kalispell, Montana, 2/11/1899 in Recreation (magazine) (August 1899), vol. 11(2), p. 139: "My experience with Indians has satisfied me that a jail sentence, especially during the winter months, is just "duck soup" for the average blanketed hobo." [http://books.google.com/books?id=V92fAAAAMAAJ&pg=PA139#v=onepage&q&f=false]

    (2) “Appekunny” (pseudonym), “Floating on the Missouri. — VII.”, Forest and Stream (magazine) (April 5, 1902), vol. 58, p. 364: “As Mr. Kipp expressed it, this [criminal prosecution] “was duck soup for the administrators of justice and the shyster lawyers.” ” [http://books.google.com/books?id=dtwwAQAAMAAJ&pg=PA264#v=onepage&q&f=false]

    (3) Alfred Damon Runyon, “The Defense of Strikerville”, McClure’s Magazine (February 1907), vol. 28 (4), p. 380: ” ‘Course they comes! Why, this is duck soup for us all.” [http://books.google.com/books?id=AIxEAQAAIAAJ&pg=PA380#v=onepage&q&f=false]

  • Christopher

    The phrase “duck soup” dates to at least 1893.

    In 1897, it appeared in a Chicago newspaper:
    Chicago (IL) Daily Tribune (23 July 1897), pg. 10:
    P. A. Brady, one of the more successful of retired bookmakers, and formerly an owner of race horses, said: “It has now come to an issue where every man must show his colors. I am out of the business and so this fight is duck soup for me.”
    [http://www.barrypopik.com/index.php/new_york_city/entry/duck_soup]

    In 1893, it appeared in a Detroit newspaper:
    Detroit Free Press (October 24, 1893), page 8 in an article titled, “Salting Western Mines: How Eastern Strangers Are Taken In By Sharpers.” Here, con men (“sharpers”) exploit the McDonalds:
    The McDonalds were “duck soup.” They were quietly moved over to Alder Gulch by a syndicate of sharpers who needed more money to develop properties.
    [http://idiomation.wordpress.com/2011/08/23/duck-soup/]

    Possibly “duck soup” was originally “dunk soup” — not a real soup but a joke: the “soup” that was easily made by dipping the body of a chicken (feathers and all) into boiling water in order to facilitate removing its feathers.

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