Dear Word Detective: Back in 2002 you punted (a sports metaphor) on the question of the origin of “having one’s ducks in a row.” You noted that it’s an expression apparently of recent coinage, but several speculations on aquatic waterfowl led to nothing very convincing. I learned once that it’s actually a games metaphor: a “duck” is a pool-hall term for a ball sitting right in front of a pocket — an easy shot. Thus to have one’s ducks in a row is to have all one’s balls sitting lined up in front of pockets, ready to be sunk in series. How do etymologists such as yourself establish the likelihood of such a claim? — Anonymous.
Thanks for an interesting question. To recap for those who missed my original column, “to have one’s ducks in a row” is an idiom meaning to have all one’s preparations done or arranged before beginning an activity or project, and the phrase is thought to have arisen by allusion to a mother duck leading her ducklings in an orderly single file. In my original column I noted that the phrase was first attested in print in 1979, but it has since been found in a Washington Post article from 1932.
The theory tracing the phrase to the game of pool is an interesting one, and “duck” is indeed a pool-hall term for a ball resting at the edge of a pocket (i.e., a “sitting duck”). But the pool theory runs aground, as many such stories do, on a lack of evidence.
Stories tracing phrases now used as general idioms to a specific time, place or practice are only believable if print citations can first be found using the phrase in that specific context. For instance, the theory tracing “the whole nine yards” (meaning “the whole thing”) to the length of aircraft machine-gun ammo belts in World War Two seems eminently reasonable. Yet there has been not a single instance found so far of the phrase being used in print in connection with actual machine guns (and WW II was a very well-documented war), only citations for the phrase in its general slang sense beginning in the late 1960s. Perhaps someday such a citation will be found, but until then the “logic” of the theory counts for nothing.
Similarly, the earliest citation found so far for “ducks in a row” (“We have a world filled today with problems and we are trying to get our economic ducks in a row,” June 1932, Washington Post) clearly has nothing to do with pool. Perhaps the writer first heard it in a poolroom, but until we find an earlier use of the phrase in the context of a pool game (as in “Smith had his ducks in a row and sank them one by one”), the familiar sight of a mother duck and her brood marching in a neat line seems a more reasonable (and much simpler) explanation.