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21 July 2017
Morning Sedition

"Why a Duck?"

Rubber Canard

I was talking with someone and when I described something as being a "canard" I received a puzzled look. The word, as those of us subjected to years of French lessons know, is French for "duck". (The edible, quacking variety not the imperative.) Canard has two common meanings. The first is a knowingly misleading fabrication or confabulation. The second is from aeronautics, where it refers to placing a horizontal control or trim surfaces in front of the main lifting surface, like a wing. In airplanes, a canard is commonly used to stabilize a small craft because it prevents stalls -- disrupted airflow over the wings -- by providing lift. So we're all clear on why it means a deliberate fabrication? No? I didn't think it would be.

Aircraft Canard

The origins of the polite alternative to the vernacular "lie" are interesting. (At least they are to an etymological freak like me.)


A hoax. Cornelissen, to try the gullibility of the public, reported in the papers that he had twenty ducks, one of which he cut up and threw to the nineteen, who devoured it greedily. He then cut up another, then a third, and so on till nineteen were cut up; and as the nineteenth was gobbled up by the surviving duck, it followed that this one duck actually ate nineteen ducks — a wonderful proof of duck voracity. This tale had the run of all the papers, and gave a new word to the language. (French, cane, a duck.) (Quetelet.)

Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, E. Cobham Brewer, 1898.

While this sounds like a good way to spread prions, it isn't telling the whole story. Cornelissen supposedly raised ducks in Provence, France around 1850. (Although he had a name that could pass for French, he was actually a Swede. This doesn't figure in the story, though.) He sold his ducks as the most delicious and tender to be found in all of Europe. (And you thought advertising puffery was a recent problem?) Cornelissen priced his ducks accordingly, at about five times that for the "ordinary" variety. In order to justify his huge premium, he was claiming that because each duck had eaten twenty other ducks his price was a bargain.

But, again, this may not be the whole story, since there is, to borrow a phrase from patents, prior art. There is an old Middle French phrase dating to 1584, "bailler un canard à moitié" (also as "vendre des canards a moitie") which means to half-sell a duck. It is also seen as "bailler le lièvre à l'oreille", or to give a hare (wild rabbit) by the ear. These expressions, in the vernacular of the time, meant to deceive someone since half-selling something is to not sell it at all. (Don't blame me if it sounds stupid; I don't make up these phrases.) But, this is still a peculiar expression. So where did it come from?

Cover of "Make Way For Ducklings" by Robert McCloskey

There is an old German word "ente", or "duck", which was used to mean "lie". It dates back to the time of Luther, far older than Cornelissen. The speculation among etymologists about the linkage between ducks and falsehoods is that ducks have erratic and unreliable reproduction, and thus "lie" about whether or not there will be ducklings.

I think that's the most sensible explanation I've heard. And that's no canard, either.

(Oh, and the title line? It's from a very unfunny sketch by the Marx Brothers — I never found them at all amusing — in "A Night At The Opera". But I thought it fit the subject rather well.)


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