The Grammarphobia Blog

Why a duck? (Part 2)

Q: What’s the origin of the phrase “to have one’s ducks in a row”? I’d like to believe that it pokes fun at self-important people who make too much of their preparations. I’ve noticed that ducks get themselves in a row quite naturally without any real effort on our part.

A: I hate to disappoint you, but the expression actually comes from duckpins, a version of bowling, rather than from waterfowl, according to Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable.

“To have one’s ducks in a row” means to have things organized—that, is lined up like the pins, or ducks, in the sport of duckpins, which originated over a hundred years ago.

Duckpin bowling, which has smaller balls and shorter, squatter pins than those used in the more popular ten-pin bowling, is found mostly on the East Coast of the United States.

The name “duckpins” comes from the way the pins scatter when hit by the ball, like ducks when a shot is fired, according to an article in the New York Times.

For more quackery, see the “duck soup” item in The Grammarphobia Blog.

Note: In bingo, the number 22, which looks like two ducks swimming side by side, is often referred to as “a couple of ducks” or “ducks on a pond” or “ducks on the water.” This comes from A Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English by Eric Partridge. It isn’t what you asked about, but I thought I’d throw it in anyway.

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