What’s In a Word: Ducks In a Row

I last used this odd saying to my tax adviser. Something about getting my ducks in a row on the deduction for all my medical costs.

I meant that we make sure all is in order, point-by-point. That we have all the receipts, the math correct, each detail addressed.

I survived IRS scrutiny, because all my ducks were in a row.

For English-language learners, hearing someone say they’re getting their ducks in a row must cause terrible confusion. What’s this person do for a living — herd ducks?

Just as confusing must be the expression “it’s raining cats and dogs!” I’ll have to look into that one in another What’s In a Word posting. Someone want to comment on it now?

Getting my ducks in a row

A little tripping around the web turned up the following at wisegeek.com:

“To get one’s ducks in a row essentially means to ensure all of the small details or elements are accounted for and in their proper positions before embarking on a new project. A defense attorney, for example, may spend much of his or her time making sure all of the evidence and witnesses are presented in a precise, effective order.

“When a person is fully prepared for any eventuality and has every element in place, he or she can indeed be said to have his or her ducks in a row.”

To which someone with an amazing amount of knowledge about the phrase ducks in a row posted the following:

Etymologically speaking, your guess as to the origins of this saying is about as good as any other.

There are at least three plausible theories surrounding the origin of “get your ducks in a row,” plus some others which, at least, put up an interesting argument.

Some sources suggest the phrase was not even used in print until the late 1970s, although a magazine article from 1932 did suggest “getting our economic ducks in a row.”

The most popular theory suggests that “ducks in a row” came from the world of sports, specifically bowling. Early bowling pins were often shorter and thicker than modern pins, which lead to the nickname ducks. Before the advent of automatic resetting machines, these “duck pins” would be manually put back into place between bowling rounds.

Therefore, having one’s ducks in a row would be a metaphor for having all of the bowling pins organized and properly placed before sending the next ball down the lane.

Many bowling alleys still offer “duck pin” lanes with smaller bowling balls and shorter pins.

Another theory comes from the world of nature. Mother ducks often corral their young offspring into manageable straight lines before traveling over land or water. Any stragglers or escapees would be noticed as long as the integrity of this line is maintained.

The idea of getting all of one’s ideas or ingredients or team members in one organized line would be similar to a mother duck getting all of her literal ducks in a row.

One concern with this theory is the use of the word ducks, since baby ducks are more correctly identified as ducklings or even chicks. The common expression suggests adult ducks, not necessarily younger ducklings.

There are also sources which argue the “ducks in a row” element refers to a carnival game or two. One popular carnival game involves the player using a small caliber rifle or air gun to knock down moving targets.

Quite often these targets are in the shape of ducks, and a conveyor belt system makes sure the duck targets are aligned in a consistent row.

It is possible that the expression came from the benefit of having all of the targets (ducks) arrive in a predictable and organized order.

A different carnival game uses plastic ducks which float in a water-filled track as players attempt to select the ones with high-value prize codes hidden underneath. These plastic ducks are generally presented in a moving row for easier selection by the players.


My final thought: Mama Duck  inspires us to get everything in order, everyone in his or her proper place, to go confidently out into the world. Not realizing we are all just sitting ducks in a cosmic carnival game.

2 thoughts on “What’s In a Word: Ducks In a Row

  1. Steve says:

    I just read an essay that really makes use of the “ducks in a row” expression. Oh, before I reproduce it, the essay, Three Is All You Need by Janice Tindle, appears in an email newsletter for caregivers — how caregivers can best take care of loved ones facing health challenges, and how caregivers can take care of themselves.

    Three Is all You Need

    By Janice Tindle
    I’ve always been a person who likes to have her ducks in a row. And just like a good mother duck, I was constantly checking, going back when I needed to, keeping all my little ducks in line. It was an exhausting job, really; but at the end of the day, I slept soundly knowing all was well. On those occasions when things weren’t well, I would always have a plan on how to make my line straight again. And I always got my ducks back in a row.

    When I suffered a brain injury, it was like someone threw a giant boulder into my pond. All my ducks scattered. Some were tossed high up into the sky and some were thrown onto dry land. Others were slammed against the shoreline and others still remain unaccounted for.

    For the first year, I was frantic—trying desperately to collect all my ducks, honking and squawking, searching, and grabbing onto any duck I could find. I couldn’t keep the ones I found together and some were too far off in the distance to be reached safely. I hoped they would find their way back to me on their own and I held onto the three I had.

    They were and remain the three closest to me at all times—Faith, Family and Friend. Faith is a healthy, loving duck that helps me out when I am low by moving out in front and taking the lead; and I am only too glad to follow. The other two, Family and Friend, are scruffy runts, but never have any trouble keeping up with Faith.

    I’m still in the same pond, hoping to one day soon be reunited with my lost ones. I know when I do, they won’t be the same as how they would have been had I been taking care of them the whole time. Oh, they probably won’t look as good or be able to stay in line as well; but still, they’re mine and I’ll be glad to have them back. A few, I fear, are gone for good, and it’s sad to think I’ll never see them again. But the first three, the ones who are always with me, make me feel truly safe and warm at night. When I look behind me, my reflection is still murky; but I can see three is all you really need.

    Originally published in the Fearless Caregiver newsletter for Tuesday, May 29, 2012.

    Janice Tindle, 51, sustained spine and traumatic brain injury in 2010 when an under-insured driver struck the car in which she was a passenger. Janice is connecting with Helphopelive.org to create a fundraiser for her ongoing rehab treatment. Formerly, Janice was an artist, vocalist and writer.

  2. Thank you:-) Janice Tindle

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