Ducks in a row

Posted by Eugene Dillenburg on October 12, 2004

I only just discovered this site. In browsing the archives, I found a handful of entries regarding the phrase "(get / have / put / keep) all your ducks in a row" dating from 1999-2001. The consensus seems to be that it derives from "duck pins," a type of lawn bolwing popular in Europe and America in the 1700s.

Hoever, according to Lighter, the phrase first appears in print in 1970 in a Steven King novel. As with "whole nine yards," it would be extremely unlikely for a phrase to be known and used, but remain out of print, for centuries.

Surfing the web, we find a variety of other theories:

baby ducklings following their mother

the line of metal ducks at a mechanical shooting arcade

"ducks" as metal weights formerly used by engineers to
define a curve

"ducks" as cargo bins which must be lined up on the dock before being loaded onto a ship

"Baby ducklings" seems most probable to me, being both a reasonably well-known phenomenon, and closely related to the meaning of the phrase (to get organized). The arcade explanation is a well-known phenomenon, but it seems quite a leap from there to the meaning of the phrase. And the other two come from specialized professional vocabulary, and thus are unlikely to have seeped in to the common language. However, I have seen no conclusive evidence to decide in favor of any theory.