The Grammarphobia Blog

Why a duct?

Q: As a writer for language publications, I enjoyed Origins of the Specious. But I wonder whether you should have included “duck tape” in your bit about the sound confusions known as eggcorns. I’ve heard that such tape was originally called “duck tape,” for its waterproofing qualities, and “duct tape” emerged only after it began to be used for sealing ducts. Care to weigh in?

A: We’ve poked around and poked around, and the result is that we’re not convinced that this is true – that “duct tape” was originally called “duck tape.” We’ve examined what evidence exists for both arguments and the results seem inconclusive.

One thing that muddies the waters is that strips of fabric – linen, silk, cotton, and cotton duck (a heavy, canvas-like cotton that often was called simply “duck”) – were referred to as “tape” from approximately the year 1000 until the early 20th century. This was nonadhesive tape, simply strips of cloth used to tie bundles of papers and such.

Here’s the Oxford English Dictionary‘s definition of “tape” in this sense, which is the oldest definition of the word: “A narrow woven strip of stout linen, cotton, silk, or other textile, used as a string for tying garments, and for other purposes for which flat strings are suited, also for measuring lines, etc.”

Therefore, some early references to “duck tape” are not the heavy, multi-layered, adhesive tape we’re interested in, but merely the old cotton tape. 

“Duct tape,” on the other hand, is defined  by the OED as “a strong cloth-backed waterproof adhesive tape, originally used for sealing joints in heating and ventilation ducts, and (later) for holding electrical cables securely in place, now in widespread general use esp. to repair, secure, or connect a range of appliances, fixtures, and equipment.”

In quotations specifically referring to the thick, rubbery World War II invention we’re talking about, the OED‘s only citation calling it ”duck tape” dates from 1996, but two earlier citations, from 1965 and 1973, call it ”duct tape.”

Still, the OED also seems uncertain whether there’s a connection. It notes that “duct tape” is “perhaps an alteration of earlier duck tape.

Meanwhile, another wrench in the works is the fact that there’s a brand of duct tape called “Duck Tape.” As if there weren’t enough confusion already. 

Until there’s better evidence, we have to go along with the conclusions of Michael Quinion, who says on his Word Wide Words website that he isn’t convinced the duck came first: 

“My view is that the original name was duct tape, given informally to it by heating engineers post-war, and that the duck tape version is elision in rapid speech, later capitalised on by a manufacturer. But, as things stand, nobody knows for sure.”

By the way, we’ve written several blog items that discuss those misbegotten words or phrases known as eggcorns, including one that appeared last January.

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