Whatever it is, I’m against it.
Dear Evan: I am a law student at Hamline University School of Law, and as a research assignment for a professor, I am trying to track down the etymology of the phrase “duck soup,” meaning something easy or easily done. Any help you can offer will be greatly appreciated. — Bryan D. Bourn, via the Internet.
It’s not in my nature to question anything a lawyer (even a fledgling lawyer) tells me, but are you absolutely certain that you’ve got that assignment right? Maybe I watched too many episodes of the old “Paper Chase” TV series, but it’s a bit difficult to picture old Professor Whatsisname (you know, the cranky but lovable character played by John Houseman) ordering a trembling student to investigate the origin of “duck soup.” Then again, during my own tenure as a paralegal at a major law firm years ago, I witnessed a conference room full of high-priced corporate attorneys buttering and devouring dozens of English muffins in an attempt to develop a legal definition of “nooks and crannies,” so I suppose anything is possible in the wild and wacky world of the law.
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. (That second citation may interest your professor. On page 35 of “A. Mutt,” we find “Attorney Shortribs announced that it would be duck soup to clear their client.”)
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” (probably responsible for boosting the popularity of the phrase quite a bit) begins with a shot of ducks paddling around in a soup cauldron. Perhaps you can convince your professor to arrange a showing of the film in class. I’ll bet there’s a clue in there somewhere.