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Ducks in a row

Q From Leo Campbell: What is the origin of the phrase, getting your ducks in a row? It seems to be common in the English-speaking world, and I know that the meaning conveys the idea of getting one’s affairs sorted, but how and why did the phrase come out this way? Why ducks? When you get them in a row, do you shoot them all with just one bullet?

A It does indeed refer to having matters neatly and efficiently organised and all your duties taken care of. It became known in the 1980s as a management exhortation to staff but is now a cliché. This is an early example:

“Be there eleven earliest,” Toby had said; “Eleven is already too early, George, they won’t arrive till twelve.” It was only ten-thirty but he wanted the time, he wanted to circle before he settled; time, as Enderby would say, to get his ducks in a row.

Smiley’s People, by John le Carré, 1980.

Until recently, it was thought that the first written example was only a year earlier, in Stephen King’s novel The Stand, with the variation to line up one’s ducks known from 1978. Then Barry Popik of the American Dialect Society found it in the issue of the Washington Post of 13 June 1932 (“We have a world filled today with problems and we are trying to get our economic ducks in a row”), suggesting that it had been around much longer. This is currently the earliest known example:

In the meantime the Democrats are getting their ducks in a row, and their ticket is promised to be very strong.

The Plaindealer, 15 Nov. 1889. Many thanks to Garson O’Toole for finding this.

The first image that comes to mind when I hear the expression is of a lower middle class living room in Britain in the 1950s or 1960s, which might well have a set of three painted plaster ducks marching in a neat diagonal line up the wall. They are not now often found, the fashion for them having been mocked out of existence by middle-class commentators. When the earliest examples of the phrase were known only from the late 1970s, we might have guessed this was where the idiom came from, but now we know it originated in the US late in the nineteenth century, that can’t be true.

Writers have suggested that the idiom comes from the game of pool, in which a ball in front of a pocket, an easy shot, is sometimes called a duck. To have a row of balls ready to be potted was to have all one’s ducks in a row. The term is known (it derives from sitting duck) but there’s no evidence it has anything to do with the idiom. More plausibly, it’s been suggested that it derives from the fairground amusement of shooting at a row of mechanical ducks, or from wild fowling, in which to get ducks in a row meant one shot could pot a number of birds at once. A newspaper reported an extraordinary example of such a practice, which you may feel requires you to suspend disbelief:

John Mitchell, who shoots game for market, recently killed 42 wild ducks at one shot at his pond on Blackwater river. Mr. Mitchell’s plan of getting the ducks in a row is by baiting with corn in a long, galvanized trough, which is sunk at a convenient distance from his blind. Then he fires a large gun, heavily charged with shot.

Recreation, Mar. 1901. Thanks again to Garson O’Toole.

But I can’t help feeling that it’s more likely to derive from another aspect of the life of real ducks. Think of a mother duck taking her brood from nest to water with her ducklings waddling in a line behind her. That’s an image that could have led to the idiom being created at almost any time. These two supporting usages are thirty years earlier than the idiom:

“Yes,” said the ducklings, waddling on. “That's better,” said their mother;
“But well-bred ducks walk in a row, straight, one behind the other.”
“Yes,” said the little ducks again, all waddling in a row.
“Now to the pond,” said old Dame Duck — splash, splash, and in they go.

Goodrich's Fifth School Reader, by Samuel Griswold Goodrich, 1857. Thanks go to Benjamin Barrett for finding this.

We walked in a row, like ducks going to the field.

Annals of the Propagation of the Faith, Vol. 15, 1854. Also from Garson O’Toole.

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Page created 11 Jul 2009; Last updated 23 Jun 2012