The possible origins of ‘ducks in a row’

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To get one’s ducks in a row means to ensure all the finer details of a plan are in place before it begins. People have been using the phrase for a long time but not many know its origin. For a while, it was said to have first appeared in print in Stephen King’s 1978 novel The Strand. Later, however, it was located in a 1932 edition of the Washington Post. Its earliest reference is from a November 1889 issue of The Plain Dealer newspaper.

There are a number of theories about where this particular idiom came from, but its most likely place of origin is North America.

The strongest theory suggests it comes from the world of bowling. In the early days, bowling pins were shorter and wider (and looked a bit like ducks). Before automatic resetting machines, a bowling attendant would have to manually set the pins back in line, or if you will, ‘in a row’.

A second theory comes straight from Mother Nature. It’s typical for mother ducks to corral their young into organised lines when travelling on land or water. This allows her to keep track of any stragglers or runaways.  In the same way a mother duck keeps her ducklings in check, so too do we organise our business.

Nowadays, we often find plastic and wooden ‘ducks in a row’ at shooting galleries and in carnival games.

Can you think of other theories about where this phrase might have come?

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Written by ameliath


Total Comments: 5
  1. 0

    No idea where it originated, but I know my parents taught me this in the 50s, so why on earth Stephen King would be credited with it I do not know.

  2. 0

    I hadn’t heard of it until now but it stands to reason that the idea came from nature and anyone who has seen ducklings following their mother would understand the meaning straight away.

  3. 0

    OMG dont they think they got enough while in Government and are still getting paid for it with their Pension and now double pay !
    No wonder the Government Coffers are in the red with all this money being paid out after they retire and get a humungous Pension and they are still not satisfied !

  4. 0

    and where does duck down come from? Suggest you ask Bob. 🙂

  5. 0

    I had always thought that “having your ducks in a row” was from a hunting background.
    From the point of view (no matter how unlikely) that when hunting ducks, the more that were in a row (in a line away from you), the less ammunition would be expended.
    But that’s just me.
    I notice that my comment is being made over a year since the last one posted.



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