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?