Posted by Elyse Bruce on August 23, 2011
When someone mentions that a task or assignment is duck soup, what they’re telling you is that it can be very easily accomplished. The expression gained popularity due in large part to the 1933 Marx Brothers movie “Duck Soup” but the Marx Brothers aren’t the ones who coined the expression.
On January 26, 1962 the Ottawa Citizen newspaper published a story entitled, “Oil Blaze Duck Soup To Texan Fire-Killer.” The story reported on how Red Adair, a Texan, nonchalantly put out an oil well fire and immediately flew back to Texas to take on another oil well fire. The story reported the following:
With the help of others he doused the flames with chemicals Thursday, then filled the well with a special mud to stop the oil from flowing.
“It was duck soup compared to some of the fires I’ve fought,” said Adair. How much the Sun Oil Company of Calgary, which brought in the well recently, will pay him has not been announced. But an official said the company had already spent $100,000 before he arrived — the fire broke out last Friday — and any fee charged would be worth it.
On December 24, 1943 the Ellensburg Daily Record in Washington state published a news story entitled, “Rocket Planes Duck Soup To Yankee Fighters.” It was the height of World War II and the article began with this:
German planes mounting the new rocket guns are “duck soup” for American fighter planes, says Wellwood Beall, vice-president in charge of engineering at Boeing Aircraft Company. Beall, just back from watching Fortresses perform over Europe, reported bombers have taken some “terrific punishment” from rockets but that he could find no cases of a direct hit.
“Ships carrying rocket guns are slow, inaccurate and duck soup for American fighter planes,” he said. “Our boys line up to see who’ll shoot them down.”
The Milwaukee Journal published an article on August 8, 1931 about Burleigh Grimes of Owen, Wisconsin who was an aging but effective spitballer playing with the St. Louis Cardinals at the time. The article was entitled, “Grove! Pooh! He’ll Be Duck Soup Says Grimes.” Burleigh Grimes was quoted in the story as saying:
“Sure, there’s one way we can lose,” Burleigh explained. “If we don’t hit, we can’t win. If we don’t make runs, we can’t win. But let us make a few runs and we’ll knock ’em over in a hurry. Grove! Pooh! says he’s got ’em scared to death in that league. Who’s he got to beat? We bet im last year, didn’t we? And he’ll be duck soup for us this October. And now about Earnshaw? I guess he’ll have another streak like he had last year? I guess not.”
On August 12, 1918 the Toronto World newspaper printed a news story by Ida L. Webster. This reporter wrote about two baseball games played on the same afternoon between Toronto and Buffalo. The news story was entitled:
Leading Leaflets Took Two Games: Bisons Proved To Be Duck Soup For Howley’s Wild Men On Saturday.
According to “The Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang” the expression “duck soup” first appeared in a newspaper cartoon in 1902 drawn by T.A. Dorgan. The cartoon shows a man in a Police Court juggling a bottle, pitcher, plate and salt shaker and the caption underneath read: Duck Soup.
However, Idiomation was able to find an even earlier printed reference in the Chicago Daily Tribune of July 23, 1897 on page 10 in a story containing 1,792 words. In other words, it was a sizeable news story! A business interviewed for the story stated:
I am out of the business and so this fight is duck soup for me.
We kept researching and came across the expression in the Detroit Free Press on October 24, 1893 on page 8 in an article entitled, “Salting Western Mines: How Eastern Strangers Are Taken In By Sharpers.” The article was 2,295 words in length and dealt with the subject of con men who made their schemes work. The article stated that a salted mine was so called because the con man easily fooled “eastern tenderfoots” headed west to grow rich overnight with his con game. The story underscored the fact that suckers made for fine food for mining sharks. The story included these two sentences:
The McDonalds were “duck soup.” They were quietly moved over to Alder Gulch by a syndicate of sharpers who needed more money to develop properties.
Since the expression duck soup was used in such a prominent newspaper in 1893, it can be assumed that the general population of the day understood the meaning of duck soup. This places the expression in the vocabulary of the day. That the expression appears in quotation marks, however, implies that it may have been a relatively new expression at the time. It can therefore be assumed that the expression dates back to sometime in the mid to late 1880s.