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Re: Funny ducks

Posted by Bruce Kahl on November 25, 2002

In Reply to: Re: Funny ducks posted by Bookworm on November 25, 2002

: : : Pardon the Marx Brothers reference, but why does this phrase mean something that is easily done? The Word Detective offers no definitive answer and attributes the popularity of the phrase to the movie.

: : : Here's the excerpt:

: : : Unfortunately, not everything is possible in the world of English etymology, and a search for the origins of "duck soup" soon runs aground on a simple lack of
: : : evidence. According to The Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang, the phrase "duck soup" first appeared in a newspaper cartoon drawn by T.A.
: : : Dorgan in 1902, and showed up again in a work by someone named H.C. Fisher in 1908.

: : : Not only is the precise origin of "duck soup" unclear, but I'm afraid that the original logic of the phrase remains obscure as well. Is "duck soup" easy because ducks are easy to shoot (as in "sitting duck"), or because ducks are very greasy and thus easily rendered into soup? Or is the phrase a play on the fact that any spot of water with a resident duck is already "duck soup"? Your guess is as good as mine. The classic 1933 Marx Brothers film "Duck Soup" begins with a shot of ducks paddling around in a soup cauldron. I'll bet there's a clue in there somewhere.

: : If Evan Morris (the Word Detective), with all his research resources, has given it a shot, nobody here is likely to turn up anything more of substance about the origin. However, this may be relevant :

: : "Comparing scores for the same joke with different animals inserted in it, we found that the funniest animal of all is a duck. So science has determined that, if you're going to tell a talking-animal joke, make it a duck" (Richard Wiseman, quoted in Tad Friend, "What's So Funny?," The New Yorker, Nov. 11, 2002, p. 79).

: I was afraid of that, but thought I'd ask anyway. So, a duck walks into a bar....

From various sources:

"Why the title Duck Soup?
The film's title uses a familiar American phrase that means anything simple or easy, or alternately, a gullible sucker or pushover. Under the opening credits, four quacking ducks (the four Marx Brothers) are seen swimming and cooking in a kettle over a fire. Groucho reportedly provided the following recipe to explain the title: "Take two turkeys, one goose, four cabbages, but no duck, and mix them together. After one taste, you'll duck soup for the rest of your life."

The first recorded use, according to Prof Jonathan Lighter in the Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang, was in a Tad Dorgan cartoon in 1902, in reference to a man juggling a set of miscellaneous items. It means some action that was easy or presented no challenge, a cinch to complete, like rolling off a log.
It's a weird phrase. Nobody has the slightest idea where it came from or what it refers to. The cartoon is no help, as it shows a man in a Police Court, juggling a bottle, pitcher, plate and salt shaker, with the caption "Duck Soup". Nobody has managed to make much sense of it. It's not even certain that TAD Dorgan actually meant by the phrase that it was something easy - it might just as well refer to something that looks easy, but is actually difficult.

Could the image be of a sitting duck, one that was on the water and easy for a hunter to shoot? Could it be that duck soup was especially easy to prepare? (I'm told that isn't so.) Might it even refer to a pond with ducks floating on it, which figuratively was already duck soup? All these have been tentatively put forward by various writers who were feverishly exercising their imaginations in the absence of solid fact."