The Grammarphobia Blog

Stools, pigeons, and ducks

Q: I noticed an interesting usage while doing genealogical research in old probate records. An estate inventory from Barnegat Bay, NJ, in 1831 listed “one double barrell gun and one lot of stool (wood) ducks.” I assume from this context that a stool duck was what we would now call a duck decoy. This leads me to wonder if a stool pigeon was originally a hunting decoy too. I’d be interested in your observations.

A: The term “stool pigeon” did indeed once refer to a hunting decoy – in this case, a live pigeon fastened to a stool to attract game birds, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The OED suggests that this meaning of “stool” may possibly be influenced by an old Anglo-French word, estale, which referred to a pigeon used to entice hawks into a net, and gave us the English noun “stale.”


The dictionary has published references dating back to the mid-1400s for “stale” used to mean a “decoy-bird, a living bird used to entice other birds of its own species, or birds of prey, into a snare or net.” (There’s no indication that the “stales” were tied to stools, however.)


By the 16th century, “stale” was being used figuratively for “a person or thing held out as a lure or bait to entrap a person,” though this meaning is now obsolete. The noun now means the urine of domestic animals, especially horses and camels.

A similar word, “stall,” was used in the 16th century to mean a decoy bird, but this usage is also obsolete. The noun “stall,” though, is still used to mean a ruse or delaying tactic.

I don’t know whether live ducks were ever tied to stools to attract birds for hunters. But John R. Bartlett’s Dictionary of Americanisms (1859) has this entry: “Stool, an artificial duck or other water-fowl used as a decoy.”

As for “stool pigeon,” by the early 19th century, the expression was being used figuratively, at first tongue in cheek but soon pretty much the way we use it today, according to citations in the OED.

In 1830, a Woodstock, VT, newspaper quoted a jokester who offered for sale “wildbirds domesticated and stool pigeons trained to catch voters for the next Presidency – warranted to suit either party.”

But six years later, Washington Irving wrote in a more serious vein about a man who “was used like a ‘stool pigeon,’ to decoy” others.

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