Luke Taylor

Grammar Grater®

with Luke Taylor

Episode 73: A Box of Quackers

Today we're discussing the etymology of a phrase that will be popping up frequently in news coverage in the next several weeks. Lame duck.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, in United States politics, a lame duck is "an office-holder who is not, or cannot be, re-elected." This includes politicians who lose their seats in an election, announce that they will retire at the end of their existing term, or—like U.S. presidents—are subject to term limits. In fact, the Twentieth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution is nicknamed the "Lame Duck Amendment." The odd circumstances created by the Constitution are summed up by Charles Earle in his book, 2107 Curious Word Origins, Sayings and Expressions from White Elephant to Song & Dance:
By the law that then existed (revised by the Twentieth Amendment [in] 1933), members of Congress who might fail of re-election in November, nevertheless still held office until March 4th following. Such outgoing "ducks" were not yet "dead," merely "lamed"; they could still, if sufficiently numerous, pass or propose legislation embarrassing to an incoming administration.

In more conventional usage, the expression extends beyond politicians to any outgoing person of authority who has not yet given up their role, but whose interim decisions might be overturned.

According to Earle, the phrase came "across the pond" to the United States in the 18th century. Back then, the British used the term to refer to stock traders who couldn't pay their debts. Someone who — in the 18th century, on London's equivalent to Wall Street, "Exchange Alley" — lost everything were said to have been seen, "waddling out of the Alley."

Once the phrase migrated to the U.S., it lost most of its negative connotations and took on its more benign, political meaning. The United States subsequently exported the term "lame duck" to the rest of the English-speaking world, where it also enjoys this same benign political meaning.

Sources: Oxford English Dictionary and 2107 Curious Word Origins, Sayings and Expressions from White Elephant to Song & Dance by Charles Earle.

Music from this Episode: "Cold Duck Time" by Jack McDuff; "Peanut Duck" by Marsha Gee.

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