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Ducks and drakes

Q From Darren Wallis, Australia: Where does the phrase ducks and drakes come from and what is the full version of the saying?

A The full saying is to play ducks and drakes and it usually means to behave irresponsibly or recklessly, to squander one’s wealth, or to heedlessly throw away something of value.

To play ducks and drakes from the sixteenth century on was to play that immemorial game of throwing a flat stone across water so that it skips and bounces several times before it sinks. Why it was given that name is uncertain, apart from the obvious association of both ducks and drakes with ponds and rivers. I’ve seen it explained as referring to the way ducks bob their heads in their courtship rituals, or the way water fowl rise from a pond, or as an allusion to the passing of these birds over water. The association of ideas is clear enough, even if the exact analogy is uncertain.

The first example recorded in English is from The nomenclator, or remembrancer of Adrianus Junius of 1585, by John Higgins: “A kind of sport or play with an oister shell or stone throwne into the water, and making circles yer it sinke, etc. It is called a ducke and a drake, and a halfe-penie cake.” (That last part may remind some readers of the old Mother Goose children’s rhyme:

A duck and a drake,
And a halfpenny cake,
With a penny to pay the old baker.
A hop and a scotch
Is another notch,
Slitherum, slatherum, take her.)

By about 1600, the game had become associated in people’s minds with idle play, in which some object is thrown carelessly away. Out of that came the idea of squandering things.

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Page created 26 Jun. 2004

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Last modified: 26 June 2004.