Out for a duck

No runs, no hits, big trauma.

Dear Word Detective: I’m searching for the meaning of the expression “out for a duck,” as used in “The first time Milne went to see his son play in a school cricket match, he was out for a duck, not scoring a single run.” — Ehrenberg H. Peter.

Ah yes, as the great existential philosopher Chico Marx once put it, “Why a duck? Why not a chicken?” Of course, in the film (Cocoanuts, 1929), Chico has misunderstood Groucho saying “viaduct,” and the dialogue then descends into Chico wondering why Groucho needs a Ford to cross the river when he has a horse, but “Why a duck?” is about all we have time for at the moment. The relevant clip, like every other worthy bit of human history, can be found on YouTube. While you’re there, check out some clips from the Marx Brothers’ subsequent film “Duck Soup.” The boys seem to have had a thing for ducks.

But who among us, as John Kerry so famously is said to have said, does not enjoy ducks? The English language certainly does. The humble but endearing waterfowl we know as the “duck” has contributed dozens of colorful phrases to our speech. When we put our affairs in order, we say we have “all our ducks in a row” (as a mother duck leads her brood of ducklings), we shed adversity “like water off a duck’s back,” we learn a new job (we hope) “like a duck takes to water” (easily), we greet a gloomy sky as “a good day for a duck” but regard sunshine as “ducky” (from the use of “little duck” and similar terms as endearments), and if something is very easy, we declare it “duck soup” (the origin of which is, sadly, a complete mystery).

Our modern English word “duck” comes from the Old English “ducan,” which did not, interestingly, mean any sort of bird. “Ducan” was a verb meaning “to plunge underwater suddenly, to dive or dip.” The name “duck” for the fowl came from its habit of feeding by “ducking,” plunging its head into the water. So when you have to “duck” your head when climbing into a compact car, don’t blame the ducks for bad design.

The phrase you cite as an example of “out for a duck” actually comes from an account of the strained relationship between A.A. Milne, author of “Winnie the Pooh” and other works, and his son Christopher Robin Milne, who starred in many of his father’s stories. The fact that the younger Milne failed to score in that cricket match was evidently a source of great disappointment to both him and his father.

“Duck” as slang for scoring no hits (or meaning a player who scores no hits) originated in cricket in the mid-19th century, but is now used in other sports as well. “Duck” in this sense is short for “duck’s egg,” meaning the zero placed beside the player’s name in scoring sheets. It first appeared in schoolboy slang in Britain, where it is also used to mean “nothing” in a general sense. To finally score after a time at “duck” in cricket is to “break one’s duck,” but if that doesn’t happen and the game concludes with a player not having scored even once, that hapless soul is said to be “out for a duck.” In the US, we more simply refer to zero as a “goose egg.”

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