Q: When that six-ton NASA satellite fell to earth a few weeks ago, I got to wondering about the expression “duck and cover.” Does it have anything to do with ducks?
A: Yes, the verb “duck” in that expression is etymologically related to the noun for the waterfowl.
The verb, meaning to dip, plunge, or dive, is what gave the the bird its name. It’s called a “duck” because it “ducks” or dives below the water’s surface.
The verb is believed to be derived from the Old English ducan (to dive), which has prehistoric West Germanic roots, according to John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins.
The Old English verb was the source of the bird’s name in Anglo-Saxon times: duce. The spelling “duck” developed later, for both the noun and the verb.
The Oxford English Dictionary says another (and drier), sense of the verb “duck” came along in the 16th century: “to bend or stoop quickly so as to lower the body or head; to bob; to make a jerking bow.”
And it’s this sense of the verb that gave us the phrase “duck and cover,” which describes a defensive posture in which one lowers the head and covers it with the arms or hands.
Any American who grew up in the 1950s will recall the “duck and cover” drills in which students were instructed to duck under their desks and protect their heads in case of a nuclear attack.
A 1951 civil defense film called Duck and Cover warned school students about what to do in case an atomic bomb were dropped. The recurring message: “Duck and cover fast!”
An animated opening sequence featured a cartoon character, Bert the Turtle, who demonstrated the “duck and cover” technique by withdrawing into his shell.
A turtle, yes, but not a duck in sight!