Q: How did the word “duck” acquire so many unrelated meanings?
A: Yes, there are lots of “duck” words and phrases. You can duck a bill collector, duck under a branch, duck out of a boring party, duck doing the dishes, duck a snowball, duck your head in a pond, and take to a new job like a duck takes to water.
As different as those uses of “duck” are, however, they’re not unrelated. Etymologists believe that all of them ultimately come from an obscure Old English verb meaning to plunge or dive.
As John Ayto explains in his Dictionary of Word Origins, “A duck is a bird that ‘ducks’—as simple as that. It gets its name from its habit of diving down under the water.”
He says the noun “duck” appeared in Old English and is believed to come from an Anglo-Saxon verb meaning to dive, but “there is no actual record of an English verb duck until the 14th century.” Nevertheless, he writes, “it is generally assumed that an Old English verb *ducan did exist, which would have formed the basis of the noun duck.”
Ayto adds that the presumed Old English verb “came from a prehistoric West Germanic verb *dukjan, which also produced the German tauchen ‘dive.’ ” The asterisks here and in the previous paragraph indicate words that presumably existed but do not appear in surviving manuscripts.
The Oxford English Dictionary defines the original noun as “a swimming bird of the genus Anas and kindred genera of the family Anatidæ, of which species are found all over the world.” The dictionary’s earliest example is from a corpus of Anglo-Saxon land charters:
“Andlang Osrices pulle þæt hit cymþ on ducan seaþe; of ducan seaþe þæt hit cymþ on Rischale” (“Along Osric’s creek one comes to the pond of ducks, and from the pond of ducks one comes to Rischale”). From an 867 charter in Codex Diplomaticus Aevi Saxonici, edited by John M. Kemble, 1848.
As for the verb, the OED says it originally meant “to plunge or dive, or suddenly go down under water, and emerge again; to dip the head rapidly under water.” The dictionary’s earliest written example, which we’ve expanded, is from Cursor Mundi, an anonymous Middle English poem dated at sometime before 1325:
“He þat doukeþ ones þer doun / Comeþ neuer out of þat prisoun” (“He that ducketh down there once never cometh out of that prison”). The prison here is Hell. The citation is from the version of Cursor Mundi at Trinity College, Cambridge.
Finally, we should mention that the use of “duck” for the tightly woven fabric in sails and outer clothing is apparently unrelated to that obscure old verb and its avian offspring.
The OED says English borrowed the fabric term in the 17th century from Dutch, where doeck means cloth, canvas, linen, and so on. The unrelated Dutch word for the bird is eend.
Although the fabric isn’t etymologically related to the waterfowl, it does repel rain “like water off a duck’s back,” an expression that showed up in the 19th century.