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Not this little black duck!

Q From Samantha Dickinson: Where does the phrase not this little black duck originate? It’s used quite extensively in Australia, and when doing a bit of research on it, I found a reference to young Australian Aborigines taking up the expression from Daffy Duck. But if it’s from Daffy Duck, why don’t Americans use it? Do you have any ideas?

A I had no idea, so I asked subscribers. Lots of people responded. Several Americans wrote to say that it is by no means unknown in the US, though to judge from the number of replies, much less common than in Australia, where some subscribers have confirmed it is often heard (while others — confusingly — claim it to be long obsolete).

It is used as an indication that the speaker is not so stupid as he is being taken to be, or that he or she is too wise to the ways of the world to be taken in by something or to agree to doing something that is against his or her best interests.

The consensus is that it does come from the Warner Bros Daffy Duck cartoons, Daffy, of course, being a small black duck who used it as his catchphrase. Quite why Australians took this particular character to their hearts is a topic for some sociologist in need of a thesis. Some subscribers pointed out that it may have reminded Australians of the Pacific black duck, the most widespread and common Australian duck, or perhaps of the black swan, emblem of Western Australia.

I would hesitate to suggest that Australians found something of themselves in Daffy — even the Warner Bros’ site says of him: “As his personality gained depth at the hands of Warner Bros cartoons’ directors, the little black duck became more self-analytical, competitive, peevish, paranoid, and neurotic”. But it goes on more positively: “Daffy, like the Greek hero Sisyphus, is a victim of injustice who continuously protests. And it’s his refusal to surrender his will to the whims of the conspiring universe that makes him heroic”.

Could this — discounting the tongue-in-cheek pop psychology about 99% — be what rang a bell? Daffy’s catchphrase is indeed said to have appealed first to black Australians. Presumably they were able to identify with this black underdog character, or at least find a rallying cry in his catchphrase as an indicator of ethnic pride. But how it shifted into the wider Australian community is still far from clear.

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Page created 26 Jan. 2002

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The English language is forever changing. New words appear; old ones fall out of use or alter their meanings. World Wide Words tries to record at least a part of this shifting wordscape by featuring new words, word histories, words in the news, and the curiosities of native English speech.

World Wide Words is copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
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Last modified: 26 January 2002.