Historically Speaking

Making sense of it all!

Dead Duck

Posted by Elyse Bruce on January 20, 2011

The phrase “dead duck” is a funny sounding phrase.  It brings to light an interesting visual and questions about how a dead duck became synonymous with the concept of being ineffectual.

The Irish Canadian newspaper of May 20, 1886 reported on Mr. Chamberlain and Mr. Gladstone of the Liberal Party by stating that

Protests are even now coming home to him, charging him with having almost accomplished the ruin of the Liberal party, and declaring that his usefulness as a leader is gone.  His vanity has destroyed all chances to the succession and his treachery of his chief has made it painfully manifest that he can no longer be trusted.  Come what may, one this is certain: Mr. Chamberlain is a dead duck politically.  Not so, however, with Mr. Gladstone.  He is cheered by many voices all over the land, urging him, in the event of an adverse vote upon his bill, not to resign, but to appeal to the people.  It is thought that this course will be adopted, provided her Majesty consents to a dissolution.

The term “dead duck” referring to politicians wasn’t something new in 1886.  History shows that in 1866, Andrew Johnson referred to John W. Forney, publisher of Philadelphia and Washington newspapers, as a dead duck.  In fact, when the New York Times reported on it on February 28, 1866, it came with the headline “Degree Conferred” and read in part:

On Thursday last, President, ANDREW JOHNSON, of the Union College, Washington City, conferred the honorary title of “dead duck” upon JOHN W. FORNEY, Esq. This exaltation creates some surprise, since it is not known that the recipient was ever in holy orders, and some go so far as to say that the President is making game of him.

Back on May, 15, 1829 the Glasgow Herald reported a very strange thing indeed.  It stated that the following had been published in the Dublin Morning Register:

In opposition to the dictum of Judge Littledale, that a dead duck was not a duck, Mr. Serjeant Adams has decided that a dead rabbit is a rabbit.  The vitality of a duck is one vitality, and the vitality of a rabbit is another vitality.

The phrase “dead duck” is an Americanism from the 1830s, originally it was political slang referring to a person who has lost influence or power and was therefore useless.  In fact, it was used in conversation without hesitation by the 1840s. 

There are even Letters to the Editor such as the one dated August 29, 1839 and published in the Hartford (CT) Courant newspaper.  The editor prefaced its publication by stating, “The following communication was received two or three weeks since.  The subject of it was considered rather small game for the writer, and it was laid on the table.  Other considerations now induce us to give it a place.” 

The author of the Letter to the Editor describes the accusations made by another party with regards to the next General Election in this way:

Respecting this accusation, he let off his popgun at the dead duck.

So somewhere between 1829 a dead duck that was not a duck came to mean — within a decade — an ineffectual person.  How that happened is something Idiomation could not track down.

What Idiomation did learn is that the word dead comes from the Old English word dead which hails from the Germanic word *dauthaz” from the 13th century.  Somewhere between “dead drunk” of 1599 and “dead on” of 1889, the phrase “dead duck” came into existence and has been around ever since.

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