Q From James Rose: ‘Lord love a duck’: is it a long winded rhyme for an expletive that has to remain unuttered in this polite company, or is there a story behind it? Beyond the Roddy McDowall movie from 1966, Google is failing me. Can you help to shed some light?
A Not a lot, I’m afraid. It’s a mild expression of surprise, once well known in Britain and dating from the early twentieth century. It has been used a lot in inoffensive situations, so I doubt it is a euphemism for the F-word.
The Oxford English Dictionary has just one example, from — of all sources — James Joyce’s Ulysses: “Paddy Leonard eyed his alemates. Lord love a duck, he said. Look at what I’m standing drinks to!” But T S Eliot also used it, in The Rock of 1934: “Lor-love-a-duck, it’s the missus!”. It also turns up a number of times in the works of P G Wodehouse, the earliest being The Coming of Bill, two years before Ulysses was published: “‘Well, Lord love a duck!’ replied the butler, who in his moments of relaxation was addicted to homely expletives of the lower London type.”
Form an adoring queue, you aristocrats
I would unhesitatingly argue that it was originally British, though it has since emigrated to other Commonwealth countries. And that origin is supported by the earliest example I’ve found, in a long-forgotten tale of 1907, The Wheel O’ Fortune, by Louis Tracy, a British journalist and prolific author: “‘Lord love a duck!’ he guffawed. ‘If only I’d ha’ knowed, I could have told my missus. It would have cheered her up for a week.’”
But why should aristocrats amorously dally with anatine animals? And why should their proclivities be turned into an exclamation? Nigel Rees suggests it was a fake Cockney version of “Lord love us!” never uttered in real life. Or it might be a line from some music-hall sketch long gone from memory. Perhaps the whole point about it is that it doesn’t make sense?