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Dead Duck

Posted by Gary Martin on October 17, 2006

In Reply to: Dead Duck Posted by Jenny Slocombe on October 17, 2006

: I know what "Dead Duck" means, but what is its origin?

: I heard a theory that it is a variation of the naval "dead in the water" (meaning a damaged boat) and well, ducks live/die in water too!!

: Anyone have any ideas?

: Jenny Slocombe

That seems unlikely. The figurative use of the term 'dead duck' is recorded from 1829. The New York Courier has a piece from June that year:

"There is an old saying 'never waste powder on a dead duck'; but we cannot avoid flashing away a few grains upon an old friend, Henry Clay."

The description of it as an old saying suggests an earlier origin, although I can't find any earlier record of it.

'Dead in the water' appears to be later. All the pre-1829 citations I can find of that phrase are literal references to things (fish etc.) that are in the water and dead.

None of the early references to 'dead ducks' relate the term to ships. There doesn't seem to be any reason to interpret 'dead duck' as originating from anything other than ducks.