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Ducking the issue

Reading Perry’s story below reminded me of the word ‘canard’. In English, canard is a word often used to describe a hoax, or tall tale.

It comes from France, where the word also means duck. Now, it was a legend in my family that the reason this word came to mean a hoax was that there was a 19th century French farmer, who had twenty ducks. He killed one, and fed it to the other nineteen ducks, and then he killed another, and fed it to the surviving eighteen, and so on, until there was only one duck left, which had therefore eaten nineteen ducks. And that apparently, this tale was widely reported in the newspapers of the time, until it was revealed to be nonsense.

Hence, ‘canard’ entered the English language as a word meaning a hoax. Or so my grandfather told me.

Despite my best efforts, I have found no evidence of this story online. Perry’s jog of my memory causes me to ask the wide knowledge of the Samizdata readership this question- was my Grandfather telling me a ‘canard’ about the origin of the word?

32 comments to Ducking the issue

  • I would be quite relieved if this turned out to be a leg-pull, but…

  • Well, I always wanted to know if this story was true or not!

  • Toulson Caffrey

    I’ve always had an interest in etymology and it’s often seemed to me that the more entertaining the folk-etymology, the less likely it is to be true. Derivations of words like this tend to be rather more dry than one would expect – or perhaps wish.

    I understand canard to be short for the French saying “vendre un canard à moitié”. Half-sell a duck. I expect the object being “half-sold” could have been anything: the words pig and poke spring to mind, but the intention is to portray a cheat or swindle.

    There seems to have been an extension of the meaning at some point where the object being “half-sold” is a tall story, and so the canard has become a hoax or fallacy.

    However, I’ve being studying etymology long enough to know that this explanation could be a canard too!

  • Just so you know. The French term for hoax is ‘canular” Canard is an old slang term for newspaper, which may say something about the level of credibility of the french press.

  • Simon Jester

    Dictionary.com gives the derivation (from The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition) as being ‘French, duck, canard, probably from the phrase vendre un canard à moitié, to half-sell a duck, to swindle, from Old French quanart, duck, from caner, to cackle, of imitative origin’.

  • Chris Harper

    I asked a friend of mine, an etymologist, but he just ducked the question.

  • Julian Taylor

    Never heard of a ‘canard’ being used to describe anything at all in the English language apart from in aeronautics where it is used for the delta canard configuration in an aircraft such as the Typhoon fighter.

  • Verity

    It’s in very common usage, Julian.

  • Verity

    I was going to ask a friend of mine, a cricketer, but he was out for a duck.

  • guy herbert

    It is in particularly common use by Tony McNulty MP. The minister likes to imply that common misapprehensions attributed by the Home Office to the public are deceptions planted in the public mind by its opponents.

  • Verity

    I was going to ask a friend of mine who’s a doctor, but he’s such a quack.

  • guy herbert

    There is the vague outline of a folk-tale in the phrase vendre un canard à moitié. Did vendre… à moitié mean to sell a half-share, rather than half-sell? If so, the cunning peasant selling a half-share in something half-wild wild is an image that would last.

  • Midwesterner

    I went to the Oxford English and found this. While they never actually tell the story, I think it’s an argument in defense of Scott’s grandfather.

    “Others have referred the word to an absurd fabricated story purporting to illustrate the voracity of ducks, said to have gone the round of the newspapers and to have been credited by many. As this account has been widely circulated, it is possible thaqt it has contributed to render the word more familiar, and thus more used, in English.”

  • Julian Taylor

    Verity, that is ‘duck’ and ‘quack’ not ‘canard’. There is a difference.

  • Verity

    Julian – a canard is a duck (or a drake).

    The French also say: dire des canards à meaning to hoax.

    I think it may come back to decoy. A decoy duck, as in the phrase Cet homme est un canard privé. (That man is a sort of decoy duck.) I think this makes more sense, by which I mean it is something that draws the attention away. In an argument, someone may bring in some hoary old, long disproved chestnut, hoping to deflect the argument along lines more to his liking, and the other person will say, “Oh, that old canard!”

  • Well, depending on what’s being pulled, *I’d* say it’s just a difference of a pinion.

  • Russ, you should be chained up somewhere for that.

  • philippe

    actually the word has exactly the same meaning (rumor etc) in french. its not widely used in this sense anymore but it did lead to the meaning of canard as a cheap newspaper (which is used in modern french). so the english conserved an original meaning that is now mostly lost in contemporary french.

    from le petit robert dictionary:

    canard (5.) ca. 1750, Fig. et fam. Fausse nouvelle lancée dans la presse pour abuser le public. (False report spread in the press in order to deceive the public) Voir “bobard”, bruit”. “Lancer des canards”. Par extension (1848): Journal de peu de valeur.

  • Verity

    Phillipe – Interesting! In much the same way, many words no longer in use in Britain have been preserved with their original meanings in the United States.

  • GCooper

    Verity writes:

    “Phillipe – Interesting! In much the same way, many words no longer in use in Britain have been preserved with their original meanings in the United States.”

    True. Like ‘freedom of speech’. (Copy to Fungus the Bogeyman.)

  • Thank you, Matt!

    All this criticizing government figures strikes me as a mallardaptive response, though, kind of like the philosophers Nero had killed after the pig feast for being too open with their opinions. Still, duck is safer to eat than pig, so it’s unlikely that we’ll come to the attention of the powers that be, and perish of tricky gnosis….

  • Verity

    Where is duck safer to eat than pig? Haven’t you heard of Asian bird flu?

  • Julian Taylor


    Out For a Duck

    Short for ‘out for a duck’s egg’, the duck’s egg being the large nought (0) recorded on the scoreboard and recorded from the 1860s.

    Quack Doctor

    The typical quack doctor would arrive in a town or village, enthusiastically singing the praises of their elixir, often using a ‘plant’ in the audience who would take the medicine and pronounce himself cured. They would sell their ‘cure-all’ and then duck out of town, moving on to dupe people elsewhere.

    Both of those sayings I’ve certainly heard of. The point I made was that I have never heard of the actual word canard being used in the English language, beyond the use in aeronautics. Not duck, quack, mallard or whatever but canard.

  • Verity

    Julian Taylor – and the point I made is, canard has been in common usage in English for probably 200 years. I have heard it since I was a child. “Oh, no! Not that old canard!”

    “Give me a break! That canard’s got a beard on it.” Blah blah blah.

    It’s found in normal everyday conversations, books, magazines and dictionaries. It has been in normal English usage for a couple of hundred years.

    I was going to ask for some further comments from a friend of mind who’s a copper, but he’s down the bill.

  • philippe

    i don’t want to flog a dead duck (nod to john bright, 1867, if this is accurate), but here’s the complete etymology for the benefit of those who still care and of future googlers:

    CANARD — C. Fausse nouvelle souvent imaginée de toutes pièces et enflée jusqu’au mélodrame dans des journaux de seconde catégorie: “Mme X. m’avait annoncé le mariage de Sabine, mais il paraît que c’est un canard (MÉRIMÉE, Lettres à la comtesse de Montijo, t. 2, 1870, p. 16)”

    false piece of news often entirely imagined and exagerated to the point of melodrama in second rate newspapers


    1584 bailler un canard à moitié « tromper quelqu’un » (FRANÇOIS D’AMBROISE, Les Neapolitaines, III, 12 ds HUG.); d’où b) ca 1750 « fausse nouvelle lancée par la presse pour abuser le public » (Pt ROB.); cf. 1839 (BALZAC, Un grand homme de province à Paris [éd. Antoine Adam, Paris, Garnier, 1956] t. 2, pp. 395-396 ds St. néophilol., t. 36, p. 318); d’où c) 1842 « journal » (E. DE LA BÉDOLLIÈRE, Les industriels, 222 ds QUEM.). P

    “bailler un canard à moitié” literally means to “half lease a duck”, meaning that only half of the transaction is ever completed, payment is made but the duck is never delivered, thus the deception.

    gory details here

  • Bill Rudersdorf

    May I quote the Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd ed., electronic version:

    canard, n.

    1. An extravagant or absurd story circulated to impose on people’s credulity; a hoax, a false report.
    Littré says Canard for a silly story comes from the old expression ‘vendre un canard à moitié’ (to half-sell a duck), in which à moitié was subsequently suppressed. It is clear that to half-sell a duck is not to sell it at all; hence the sense ‘to take in, make a fool of’. In proof of this he cites bailleur de canards, deliverer of ducks, utterer of canards, of date 1612: Cotgr., 1611, has the fuller vendeur de canards a moitié ‘a cousener, guller, cogger; foister, lyer’. Others have referred the word to an absurd fabricated story purporting to illustrate the voracity of ducks, said to have gone the round of the newspapers, and to have been credited by many. As this account has been widely circulated, it is possible that it has contributed to render the word more familiar, and thus more used, in English.
    [I saw the word in print before 1850 (J.A.H.M.).]

    1864 in Webster. 1866 Even. Standard 13 July 6 A silly canard circulated by the Owl, about England having joined France and Russia in ‘offering’ their mediation to the belligerents. 1880 W. Day Racehorse in Train. xix. 185 The canards so industriously circulated as to the real cause of the deadly opposition he had met with.

    Hope this helps,

  • Verity

    Bill Rudersdorf – Thank you! What Julian Taylor was in denial about is the currency of this word in English. “As this account has been widely circulated, it is possible that it has contributed to render the word more familiar, and thus more used, in English.
    [I saw the word in print before 1850 (J.A.H.M.).]”

    Julian, you know, you know, you could have looked it up on the WW Web.

  • Kerry

    According to RandomHouse: Yes, canard does mean ‘duck’ in French. The question here is whether the French word is related to the English word you’re curious about, canard meaning ‘a false or baseless, usu. derogatory story, report, or rumor’. The answer is yes.

    While the connection between ducks and false stories would seem to be an unusual one, the explanation is simply that a part of a French idiom has made it into English, and the idiom doesn’t translate well. Just as “kick the bucket” meaning ‘to die’ wouldn’t make sense if it were literally translated into another language, the French idiom doesn’t make sense in English.

    Canard means ‘a false story; hoax’ in French, which is where the English sense directly comes from. But the full phrase, in use since Middle French, is vendre un canard a moitie (with accents omitted), which means ‘to cheat or swindle’, and literally means ‘to half-sell a duck’, since to half-sell a duck is the same as not selling it at all. And something–the duck–used for swindling can be considered a false or deceptive thing, which is how it all gets tied together. In English we only preserve the ‘duck’ word, without the rest of the idiom–which, as said, wouldn’t make sense in English anyway.

    This sense of canard is first found in English in the middle of the nineteenth century. The French word is based on a word meaning ‘to quack; cackle’, which is of imitative origin.

  • guy herbert

    Thanks philippe. I got as far as Petit Robert myself. I’m lacking in the deeper resources, though. The link doesn’t work though 🙁

  • Thanks to all for the informative responses, and thanks to Verity and Russ for the puns 🙂

  • As I remember it, a French duck goes “coin coin” or phonentically speaking “quion quion”; Rather that the quack quack preferred by anglo saxon mallards.

  • And then there is the spikenard, produced by crossbreeding the duck with a cormorant.