Q: What’s the history behind the expression “to get one’s ducks in a row”? And did anyone ever get ducks to line up?
A: We’ll answer your second question first. Yes, a mother duck does somehow manage to get her ducklings to line up in a row and follow her. Did this inspire the usage? Well, it’s one of several theories, but we haven’t found much evidence to support any of them.
As far as we can tell, the expression “to get [put, have, etc.] one’s ducks in a row,” meaning to be well prepared or organized for something, first appeared in late 19th-century American usage.
The earliest example we’ve seen is from a 19th-century African-American newspaper in Detroit: “In the meantime the Democrats are getting their ducks in a row, and their ticket is promised to be very strong” (the Plaindealer, Nov. 15, 1889).
The next example is a newspaper headline in South Carolina: “His Ducks in a Row” (Watchman and Southron, Sumter, July 22, 1891). The article describes “the extensive and handsome improvements” made by a businessman to increase “his space as well as his usefulness and activity” for “the accommodation of those who desire to be well served.”
A few months later, this headline appeared on an advertisement for a clothing sale: “Getting Our Ducks in a Row” (The Evening Visitor, Raleigh, NC, Nov. 20, 1891). After a list of items in the sale (“Ladies all wool vests, white, 50c,” “Men’s heavy undershirts, 17c,” etc.), the ad says these are “only a few stray shots and will be followed by the heavy sharp shooting and cannonading in quick succession.”
The use of firearm metaphors here raises the possibility that the usage may have originated as a figurative reference to the “duck shoot” attraction at fairgrounds, carnivals, and amusement parks, where visitors fire at a row of mechanical ducks. However, that’s pretty speculative. We haven’t seen any other etymological evidence to support the “duck shoot” theory.
We’ve also seen little or no evidence for two other theories about the source of the expression: (1) a row of real ducklings following their mom, or (2) duckpin bowling, a sport with pins that are smaller and squatter than those in the more common ten-pin bowling.
In fact, duckpin bowling first appeared in the early 1890s, after the expression showed up in Detroit. And we’ve seen no evidence that references in 19th-century books and newspapers to a row of real ducks inspired the figurative usage.
However the expression originated, it reminds us of Make Way for Ducklings (1941), Robert McCloskey’s book for children, which helped popularize the image of a mother duck leading a row of ducklings.
We’ll end, however, with an example from an earlier children’s book, Goodrich’s Fifth School Reader (1857), by Samuel Griswold Goodrich. Here a mom is teaching her ducklings how to walk in a straight line to a pond:
“Yes,” said the ducklings, waddling on. “That’s better,” said their mother;
“But well-bred ducks walk in a row, straight, one behind the other.”
“Yes,” said the little ducks again, all waddling in a row.
“Now to the pond,” said old Dame Duck—splash, splash, and in they go.