Historically Speaking

Making sense of it all!

Water Off A Duck’s Back

Posted by Elyse Bruce on August 26, 2011

When someone says something is like water off a duck’s back, what they’re telling you is that it has no short-term or long-term effect on them at all.  Recently former Miss Wales, Imogen Thomas was pelted with a water bomb according to the July 29, 2011 edition of the Daily Mail in the UK. It stated in part:

It appeared that Imogen soon put the water bomb incident behind her however — water off a duck’s back, as it were.

On October 7, 1961 the Prairie Outdoors column written by Morris Ferrie and published by the Saskatoon Star Phoenix saw this story published:

Often used is the phrase “like water off a duck’s back” when describing an attitude of indifference.  Well, this attitude was far from present the other day when farmers from around bone-dry Pelican Lake met with sportsmen and government representatives in Moose Jaw to discuss the situation.

In the end, the story ended well with the announcement that “any disagreement that may have existed with respect to the presence of Pelican Lake was completely overwhelmed when the following resolution was passed unanimously:  RESOLVED that Pelican Lake be restored and maintained for the purpose of providing for agricultural and waterfowl needs and that the lake be managed in a manner to make it permanent, and further be it; RESOLVED that this resolution be referred for immediate action to the Provincial Departments of Agriculture and Natural Resources, the P.F.R.A. and Ducks Unlimited (Canada).”

On August 3, 1910 the Deseret Evening News ran a news story about Secy Ballinger who had denied the rumour that he would be tendering his resignation soon, after having met with Senator Crane in Minneapolis, MN the day before.  The headline read, “No Resignation For Ballinger: President Stands By Him.”  He was quoted as saying:

“All this vicious attack by unscrupulous men, backed by newspapers with even less scruples, goes off me like water off a duck’s back.  That never will induce me to resign.”

On September 25, 1894 the Lawrence Daily Journal ran an advertisement for Pearline soap.  The main copy, signed by a James Pyle of New York City, read:

Like water off a duck’s back — so dirt leaves, when Pearline gets after it.  No matter where it is, the easiest, safest, quickest and cheapest way to get rid of it is with Pearline.  Washing clothes is Pearline’s most important work.  That’s because it saves so much wear and tear, as well as labor, by doing away with the rub, rub, rub.  But don’t lose sight of the fact that Pearline washes everything.  Dishes, paint, marble, glass, tin-ware, silver, jewelry, carpets, hangings — there’s work to be saved with all of these, by using Pearline.

The saying also appeared in an advertisement in the March 14, 1893 edition of the Manawatu Herald in New Zealand selling this amazing new product.  The main copy read:

Have you see the new Rainproof “Impervanas” Dress Serges now showing at Te Aro House, Wellington?  “Like water off a duck’s back” describes their wonderful quality.  No one need now fear the heaviest shower of rain while wearing a dress of the impervious “Impervanas” Serge.  Procurable only at Te Aro House, Wellington.  “Impervanas” Serges will not spot, will not shrink, are not affected by sea water, and are made of the best New Zealand wools.  Write for patterns to the sole agent, James Smith, Te Aro House, Wellington.  The Showroom is abundantly stocked with choice good for present requirements of which we invite inspection and comparison.  Ross and Sandford, District Importers, the Bon Marche, Palmerston North.

The Grey River Argus published on May 23, 1874 reported on a serious situation in Nelson, New Zealand as it pertained to the Provincial Council and the Brunner Mine owned by the Government and purchased from the late Ballarat Company in 1868.  It stated in part:

This is one of the advantages of a non-responsible Government — that it can afford to allow hostile motions to glide like water off a duck’s back, or rather like a pellet from the scales of an alligator.  In support of his allegations that the Estimates were not framed in accordance with the requirements of the province, and that the department expenditure was too high, Mr. Donne said ….

The article quotes Mr. Donne word for word as he dissects the revenues and expenses of the Council in making his point that administration costs of 76 percent plus all the other deductions and expenses along with the quality of the work done in the department.  The Provincial Treasurer is said to have attempted to present a defence of the Estimates but in the end, the Estimates were returned for reconstruction according to the news story.

The American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms claims the phrase is from the early 1800s and it may well be however Idiomation was unable to find a published reference prior to 1874.  That being said, it was used in the news story without quotation marks and as such, it was not a recent colloquialism.  Because news travelled at a more relaxed pace in the 1800s than it does in the technologically connected world of today, new expressions took time to be incorporated into the language, finally making it into books and, in the end, newspapers and magazines. It is, therefore, not unreasonable to believe that the word was in use for at least a generation prior to being printed in the Grey River Argus, putting the date to the late 1840s or early 1850s.

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