Friday, 9 September 2016

Michael Quinion on Lame Ducks

I am sure that you will have heard the term "lame duck" before, referring to incompetence or uselessness on the part of people ...or organisations.

The renowned etymologist, Michael Quinion, has shed light on where the  term originated, if not exactly how it came into being.

Michael has explored the British stock market of the 1860s, and found that ducks, bulls and bears were already common members in the menagerie of market practices performed by "London stockbrokers and jobbers [who] operated from coffee houses such as Jonathan’s and Garraway’s in a little street called Exchange Alley, close to the main commodity trading centre, the Royal Exchange" (see cartoon illustrating this piece from the US Library of Congress, showing bulls, bears and lame ducks in Change Alley).

Michael adds some fantastic flavour by relating that "Change Alley or just the Alley [...] still exists, now officially called Change Alley, as a network of five back streets of no particular distinction in the City of London. The coffee houses are long gone; the jobbers and brokers left even earlier, decamping to a specially constructed building in Sweeting’s Alley in 1773, which later became the Stock Exchange".

The lame duck term arose around a century before this, around the 1760s, likely created by a social commentator to describe traders "who failed to pay up when bills became due, effectively bankrupting themselves and leading to their being barred from trading", with "the currently earliest known example appeared in the Newcastle Courant on 5 September [1761], in a brief report of moneys being paid by subscription into the Bank of England, with a note that there were 'No lame ducks this time'."

Michael notes that, while the 'lame' aspect is clear because of the trader's inability to sustain their finances, the origin of the 'duck' part of the phrase is lost in the mists of time.

He notes that:
"almost every one of the many later references to these failed traders refers to them as waddling away, an early example being in the Leeds Intelligencer on 29 June 1762 (emphases in the original): 'Yesterday a lame duck or two made shift to waddle out of ’Change Alley'.

"Perhaps they were low-slung portly gentlemen, the eighteenth-century equivalent of today’s fat cats, and the way they walked suggested a duck with a bad foot? More probably, having established that failures were to be called lame ducks, the derisive image of them struggling away limping was too good not to use
I wonder if the cricketing term, out for a duck, is related to this?



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