Historically Speaking

Making sense of it all!

Ducks In A Row

Posted by Elyse Bruce on August 22, 2011

It’s “Everything’s Ducky Week” at Idiomation and we’re starting off with the expression to get or have your ducks in a row.  This refers to having things well-organized before you begin.  Many online sources and books claim that the phrase is slang that came about in the 1970s, however, Idiomation has found earlier printed news stories with the phrase ducks in a row.

The Spartanburg Herald Journal in South Carolina ran a story on June 21, 1947 entitled, “The Bulwinkle Bill” which dealt with the bill designed to give the railroads in America the right to confer  upon matters of rate making, under approval of the Interstate Commercial Commission which was colloquially referred to as the Bulwinkle Bill.  However, the bill was opposed by a group of Southern senators despite its passing by the Senate with a two-thirds majority. The article stated:

The railroads of this country are entitled to “get their ducks in a row.”  They are now, and always will, bear the burden of traffic in this country and they have not in recent years enjoyed a very substantial prosperity.  They have encountered competition from truck traffic and will experience further competition from air transportation.

The Herald Sports weekly newspaper published an article written by Associated Press staff writer Miles H. Wolff on November 17, 1931 entitled “Columbia and Clinton Scenes Of Hot Games.”  He began his article with this:

The schedule makers of our South Carolina colleges are busily engaged just now getting their ducks in a row for the 1932 football season.  That they are having difficulties can be guessed at from the fact that the end of November nears and not one institution of higher learning has announced its next, year’s card.

Earlier yet, the Daily Progress newspaper in Petersburg, Virginia ran an article on June 16, 1910.

It quite frequently happens that when political parties and even nations think they have “their ducks in a row” the unexpected happens which knocks their well-laid plans awry.

Now the top bowlers of the 19th century in America decided that bowling needed a standard set of rules and so the American Bowling Congress — which was renamed the United States Bowling Congress in later years — was established in 1895. The game had been brought to America by the Dutch, Germans and English shortly before the Civil War when only 9 pins were used in the game. The game proved to be very popular with the population, so much so that in 1841, Connecticut outlawed 9-pin bowling due to its association with gambling.

To get around the law, indoor bowling alley proprietors added a tenth pin to the game in 1870 and the new game flourished. The game was modified and short, slender pins were introduced called duckpins because of the pin’s appearance.

However, modernization hadn’t yet come to these bowling alleys and people were employed by the indoor bowling alleys to set the pins up for each player’s frame in a game.  The re-setting of the pins was referred to as getting one’s ducks in a row.

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