Q From Jonas Wetherell: Is that universal sticky tape stuff that everyone has in their garage toolkit called duct tape or duck tape? I've seen and heard it both ways.
A It’s possible to make a case that either is right. The story behind the stuff is confusing enough to require some sorting out. Bear with me while I trace the evidence and the contrary opinions, though I must warn you that I come only to a tentative conclusion.
The first example of duct tape I've found is from an advertisement in a newspaper in Wisconsin in September 1965. There are lots of earlier examples of duck tape in the same archive that date back to the early 1940s (and the Oxford English Dictionary has found one from 1902), which might suggest that it’s the older form. But that’s misleading. This duck tape isn’t the triple-layer, tearable, silver, sticky-backed stuff but plain cotton tape. The material has been called duck for four centuries, though it was originally made from linen, not cotton. It was a lighter and finer material than canvas, often used for seamen’s trousers and sometimes for sails on small craft. Duck tape was widely used at one time for the vertical binding tapes of venetian blinds.
There’s nothing in any records of usage in historic databases or in the entries for both terms in the Oxford English Dictionary that suggests what the original name of the adhesive-backed material might have been. From here on I can do no more than relay and comment on accounts that have appeared on various Web pages and in a column by William Safire in the New York Times in March 2003. All tell the same story (so much so that they arouse unworthy suspicions). The tale is plausible, though I can’t prove it and there are some worrying loose ends.
The original material was developed, it is said, by the Permacel division of Johnson & Johnson in 1942 for the US Army as a waterproof sealing tape for ammunition boxes. The tape proved immensely versatile and was used for all sorts of repair purposes on military equipment. These facts come from Johnson & Johnson’s historians, so ought to be accurate. But the story goes on to say that because the fabric backing was made from cotton duck and perhaps because it repelled moisture “like water off a duck’s back”, it became known to soldiers as duck tape. However, there’s no known use of duck tape in any document of the Second World War that anyone investigating the matter has looked at. A column by Jan Freeman in the Boston Globe in March 2003, partly in response to Safire’s, implies that the story about the name duck tape might have been a folk etymology passed on in good faith by employees of Johnson & Johnson. Otherwise, we have no information about what Permacel, or the US Army, called the material.
Some time after the War, it is said, engineers begin to use the tape to seal the joints in air-conditioning ducts. This tape was manufactured in the same way, though to match the ducting it was coloured silver rather than the green of the Army version. Because of this use, it became known informally as duct tape.
Duck tape is a trademark of Henkel Consumer Adhesives, dating from 1982, who sell it under that name in several countries. John Kahl, the CEO of the firm, was reported by Jan Freeman in the same article as saying that his father chose the name after noticing that duct tape sounded like duck tape when customers asked for it. (The collision of the two ts in the middle of duct tape causes the first one to be lost by a process called elision.) The term duct tape has never been trademarked, though several compound terms that include it have — it looks as though it had become generic before anybody thought of registering it. Apart from a one-off instance in the Oxford English Dictionary of duck tape from 1971 (which looks like a case of the duct — duck elision), I can’t find duck tape in the adhesive sense until the 1980s.
My view is that the original name was duct tape, given informally to it by heating engineers post-war, and that the duck tape version is elision in rapid speech, later capitalised on by a manufacturer. But, as things stand, nobody knows for sure.
As etymological asides, the tape has also been called ninety-mile-an-hour tape or hundred-mile-an-hour tape (because, it is said, you could drive a vehicle repaired with the stuff at those sorts of speeds without problems). A closely similar material used on television and film sets is called gaffer tape. This gets its name from the chief electrician, the gaffer, because one of its main uses is to hold cables in place, though it has many others. (In general, a gaffer is the boss of a crew, a foreman or similar person, a name which derives from an English term of respect for an old man that's most likely a contraction of godfather.) The term gaffer tape is of similar age to duct tape, being first recorded in the 1970s.