Historically Speaking

Making sense of it all!

Lame Duck

Posted by Elyse Bruce on November 18, 2013

Lame ducks are such interesting creatures, figuratively speaking. In politics, a lame duck is an elected official who is approaching the end of his or her tenure, and in most cases the successor to that politician has either already been elected to replace him or is being groomed to replace him. In legislative terms and still within the framework of politics, a lame duck is a session that’s inactive. If you’re talking game design, a lame duck is a player in the game who can’t win and yet remains in the game as an active player. In all nutshell, a lame duck is a person or thing that finds himself or herself or itself less capable, and currently disabled, helpless, ineffective, or inefficient.

The Seattle Times republished a news story by Washington Post reporter, David A. Fahrenthold on December 17, 2010 that talked about the most recent session of Congress where frantic legislators hurried all sorts of things. The article, stated:

In 1933, historians say, the country ratified a constitutional amendment intended to kill off sessions like this, where defeated legislators return to legislate. The headline in The Washington Post was “Present Lame-Duck Session Will Be Last.”

So what was this Lame Duck session to which David A. Fahrenthold referred?

On March 2, 1932 Senator George W. Norris put forward a proposal that would later be ratified on January 23, 1933 and take effect on October 15, 1933. This proposal became known as the twentieth amendment of the U.S. Constitution. The purpose of the amendment was to reduce the amount of time between election day and the beginning of Presidential, Vice Presidential and Congressional terms. In other words, the amendment called for Congress and each new President to take office in January instead of March (as had been the customary practice), thereby eliminating the lame-duck session of Congress.

It was such an interesting news story that newspapers across the U.S. and abroad kept abreast of the unfolding proposal. This included the Milwaukee Journal of August 2, 1932 that reported on the proposal in a story entitled, “Lame Duck Amendment.”

The lame duck amendment, it will be recalled, proposes to make the federal government more immediately responsible to the will of the people by ending the “short session” of congress and by putting congressmen and president into office in the January following the November elections. Under present constitutional provisions, a defeated president remains in office more than four months after his defeat and a defeated congressman has the same time in which to continue in a course that has been disapproved by the voters. The new congressman, unless a special session is called, must wait thirteen months before taking over the duties to which he has been elected.

While additional details were provided in the story, one last bit should be included and that is to say that the lame duck amendment was seen as a desirable amendment from the standpoint of voters. And why might that be? As the newspaper put it:

Every congressman and every person ambitions to be a congressman figures that some day he may be a “lame duck” seeing what advantage he can from his last days in congress.

Another reason for putting forth this proposal had to do with the 1876 election where Samuel J. Tilden took the popular vote, and neither he nor Rutherford B. Hayes had the majority of the votes of the Electoral College. Because of this, Samuel J. Tilden and Rutherford B. Hayes both claimed the same electoral votes in some of the states, thereby complicating matters considerably.

The Manufacturers and Farmers Journal of July 18, 1895 ran a story about the Valkyrie III, a sailing yacht of great acclaim. The article was entitled, “Valkyrie III Criticised: She Showed Herself A Lame Duck In A Strong Breeze.” The article began with this description of the yacht:

Valkyrie III is not exactly the same cutter in light and heavy winds. In light winds she proved herself alongside of Britannia and Ailsa, at Rothesay, June 29, the fastest light-weather yacht under canvas ever built in this country but on the 3rd, with a strong breeze, she showed herself a veritable lame duck.

In 1847, William Makepeace Thackeray wrote and published a book entitled, “Vanity Fair.” In Chapter 13, which was entitled, “Sentimental And Otherwise,” comments about Amelia’s father (identified in the story as Mr. Sedley) and his poor business decisions of late are discussed by Mr. Osborne and George. The discussion is important insofar as George is engaged to be married to Amelia, and this information could lead to calling off the engagement.

“I don’t deny it; but people’s positions alter, sir. I don’t deny that Sedley made my fortune, or rather put me in the way of acquiring, by my own talents and genius, that proud position, which, I may say, I occupy in the tallow trade and the City of London. I’ve shown my gratitude to Sedley; and he’s tried it of late, sir, as my cheque-book can show. George! I tell you in confidence I don’t like the looks of Mr. Sedley’s affairs. My chief clerk, Mr. Chopper, does not like the looks of ‘em, and he’s an old file, and knows ‘Change as well as any man in London. Hulker & Bullock are looking shy at him. He’s been dabbling on his own account I fear. They say the Jeune Amelie was his, which was taken by the Yankee privateer Molasses. And that’s flat—unless I see Amelia’s ten thousand down you don’t marry her. I’ll have no lame duck’s daughter in my family. Pass the wine, sir—or ring for coffee.”

To this end, it would seem that the expression is from the London Stock Market and refers to investors who were unable to pay their debts. Animals seem to be a favorite expression when it comes to stock markets; terms such as the well-known bulls and bears of the stock market. However the term dove was also used in London and is a British slang term meaning someone is a sucker, and rook, which means a swindler or to swindle, is actually a species of European crow.

The Edinburgh Advertiser reported on October 22, 1772 that many people had gone broke in the London stock market (Exchange Alley).  The newspaper story stated:

Yesterday being the settling day for India stock, the bulls had a balance to pay to the bears to the amount of 23 per cent. Only one lame duck waddled out of the alley, and that too for no greater a sum than 20,000 £.

And the Berrow’s Worcester Journal edition of September 12, 1771 published an announcement that advertised a catalogue of new books and plays “just going to be published” could be found with the names of the respective authors alongside. One such book was entitled, “The Lame Duck” by Lauchlin Macleane.

Going back just a few months prior, the Oxford Magazine of January 1771 published by “A Society of Gentlemen, Members of the University of Oxford” reviewed books, shared essays, printed letters and more. Of particular note was what was found on page 151 (just ahead of the Poetical Essays) where the following was published:

Being asked the other day why he did not visit his old friend at the Tower, he answered, “Because I am lame.” “No,” replied his Catechist, “You are not yet, to our misfortune, a lame Duck; but your back is broke by the weight of your contract, and it makes you so unweildy, that you cannot travel so far as the Tower.”

In a letter dated 28 December 1761 the Earl of Orford, Horace Walpole, wrote to the British envoy in Tuscany, Sir Horace Mann, he wrote this:

I had rather have a bronze than a thousand pounds in the Stocks; for if Ireland or Jamaica are invaded, I shall still have my bronze: I would not answer so much for the funds, nor will I buy into the new loan of glory. If the Romans or the Greeks were beat, they were beat; they repaired their walls, and did as well as they could; but they did not lose every sesterce, every talent they had, but he defeat affecting their Change-Alley.

The discussion was, obviously, about the stock market (which was known as Change-Alley at this point in history). Further in this same letter he wrote:

How Scipio would have stared if he had been told that he must not demolish Carthage, as it would ruin several aldermen who had money in the Punic actions. Apropos — do you know what a Bull, a Bear, and a Lame Duck are? Nay, nor I either — I am only certain they are neither animal nor fowl, but are extremely interested in the new subscription. I don’t believe I apply it right; but I feel as if I should be a lame duck if the Spaniards take the vessel that has my altar on board.”

While Horace Walpole may not have understood the term very well, it was a term that was understood by many who were involved with, or in, the Stock Market as seen in an etching on paper that is in the British Museum (museum number: J, 1.24) lettered with the title and captions in the image and annotated in ink, and entitled, “A Scene in Change-Alley, among the Bull, Bears, & Lame Duck.” This etching dates back to 1770.

Interestingly enough, Ducks-and-Drakes is a game that dates back to the 1580s that involved skipping flat stones on water. Figuratively speaking, if you were playing at Ducks-and-Drakes it meant the person was throwing something away recklessly. It would seem then, that long before the London Stock Exchange, the word duck was associated with losing important things, money being one such thing.

Idiomation was unable to find an earlier published version of lame duck than those found in the 1770s although for the term to be established in 1770 (albeit not well with some of the upper class who would have been knowledgeable about the Stock Market), the expression would go back at least one generation to 1750. That being said, the game of Ducks-and-Drakes seems to be the point of origin that led to the expression lame duck, and as such, Idiomation is pegging this expression to the 1580s.

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