Historically Speaking

Making sense of it all!

Sitting Duck

Posted by Elyse Bruce on August 25, 2011

The expression sitting duck refers to someone or something vulnerable to a physical or verbal attack.  It’s such a common expression that the National Society of Newspaper Columnists established the Sitting Duck Award, a tongue-in-cheek honour that pokes fun at the most ridiculed newsmakers in the United States.  The winner in 2009 was Alaska Governor Sarah Palin who beat out ousted former Governor of Illinois, Rod Blagojevich.

In 1977, Canadian artist Michael Bedard created a lithograph entitled, “Sitting Ducks.”  It depicted three ducks sitting in beach chairs and wearing sun glasses.  The lithograph became so popular that it became a TV show and led to a children’s book by Michael Bedard, published in 1998, titled identically to the lithograph.

On June 14, 1944 the Milwaukee Journal carried a report by journalist Ira Wolfert onboard the Tuscaloosa and harboured in the Bay of Seine in France and how they deal with the Germans who dare to attack.  The story, gruesome in many respects as it reports in some detail how the Americans are beating the Germans, also brings some humour to the news article.  One can imagine the very silly image that accompanies the statement that “when the Nazis throw down the gauntlet to a warship you see the gauntlet splash in the water.”  The new story, entitled, “Ira Wolfert, On Sitting Duck Cruiser Sees — and Hears — Some Good Big Gun Action.”

Capt. Waller, in command of the Tuscaloosa, gives his gunners every chance to plot the line pointing to the battery.  He holds this $15,000,000 warship steady, setting it up as a “sitting duck” bait for the Germans.  He waits for German shells to come close enough, say within 50 yards, so that he knows the next shots will be right on him.  Then he picks up and moves and the Tuscaloosa’s guns go to work.

Just a few years earlier, on June 13, 1938 the St. Petersburg Times published an article entitled, “Hobnobbing With The Heavies.”  In the article the following is found:

Schmeling would not be going into the ring unless he was absolutely convinced of the outcome.  He thinks it will be like shooting a sitting duck.  Louis seems confident enough, himself, but not like Schmelling.  Louis, if anything, appears to be slightly tired of the fighting business.  Schmelling loves it and is imbued with a fierce determination to win back the title for himself and for Germany.

Idiomation was unable to find an earlier published reference to this phrase however as with other phrases, when it is found in a mainstream newspaper, it is understood by the general readership which means that the expression was well-known and understood in 1938.  It is reasonable to guess that the expression dates back at least another generation to the early 1920s at the very least.

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