Sunday, May 31, 2015

Like a duck in thunder

Today I had occasion to seek the origin and meaning of the phrase (in full) “like a dying duck in a thunderstorm”.   If you google that phrase, you’ll find plenty -- mostly pages and pages  inconclusive forum discussion;  even if an authoritative answer lies buried there somewhere, daunting to sift the haystack in search of the needle.

So here is the entry from a standard reference-work, A Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English, by Eric Partridge (first edition 1937; many subsequent updates), in its entirety:

To have a ludicrously forlorn, hopeless, and helpless appearance :  coll., orig. rural:  from ca. 1850 (Ware).

Now, as it happens, we can antedate that date;  and this, in a lexicographically most interesting way:  not with a simple antecedent Erstbeleg, but something more powerful though more roundabout.


Back when I was an editor at Merriam-Webster dictionaries, I had full responsibility for the two technical disciplines of Etymology and of Pronunciation, but none at all for the company’s meat and drink, which was defining;  let alone for deciding which new words were to be entered in the flagship Collegiate ™ dictionary, which was lightly revised each year, and wholly reedited each decade.  That privilege fell to the Editor-in-Chief, Dr. Mish -- an intelligent and well-educated man, and not without a certain wry humor;  but as regards the humors, he rather took after his atrabilious and phlegmatic predecessor, Doctor Johnson, whose sour frowning portrait hung over his depth, exactly matching the successor’s habitual mood.  I used to despair at the chef-rédacteur’s obstinate sluggishness against admitting culturally key new words -- they’d make it in eventually, but only after the kairos had long passed -- and occasionally would champion some one particular word for inclusion, loading the files with attestations for the definer to refer to next time around.
One such, at the height of Gorbachev, was glasnost.   Many were the citations I supplied, to lobby for this word, all to no avail.  To be fair to the editor:  One can argue that we can always pile up stats for some particular term, no matter how specialized, by drawing from specialized sources:  which would prove nothing.  (Indeed, we had a science editor who used to do just that.  Check out the profusion of diffuse biochemical terms in the Collegiate.) The Collegiate is not for the specialist, but for the general educated public;  and glasnost is, after all, in origin  Russian:  the Collegiate is quite rightly chary of letting in too many foreign terms (like Erstbeleg -- common in the lexicographic literature, but unknown outside it).  So, how to show that the word had passed into English common currency?
In support of the suggestion that glasnost be included, I submitted slips attesting (from everyday journalistic sources) such derivata as glasnostic, with fully English morphology (and phonology:  the stress shifts to another vowel, which additionally is detensed).  Now, that adjective was nor more than a nonce form, a journalistic flourish, unworthy of inclusion on its own (even as an "undefined run-on" to the noun);  but it did witness the fact that, by then, glasnost had already passed into the everyday Wortschatz of American English, for a confection like “glasnostic” presupposes the antecedent currency of the base.


And so, back to our duck.

Consider the following passage from Dickens’ novel Martin Chuzzlewit:

‘What,’ he asked of Mr Pecksniff, happening to catch his eye in its descent;  for until now  it had been piously upraised, with something of that expression which the poetry of ages has attributed to a domestic bird, when breathing its last amid the ravages of an electric storm

Now,  this circumlocuitous, scarcely lapidary, obscure expression, is (as the annotator notes, in the Penguin edition) nothing more nor less than a winking allusion to the set expression (alliterative, assonant, and striking in its imagery) a dying duck in a thunderstorm.  Moreover, the allusion could not possibly work unless that expression were antecedently quite familiar to the reader, since -- much more than the morphological presupposition of glasnost by glasnostic-- there is a significant gap (lexical, though not semantic) between the original and the pastiche.   The case is often to be met with in literature -- more usually in a droll setting, as here, though we do find  “like the cat in the adage” in MacBeth, an allusion  (one requiring rather a lot of the groundlings, one should have thought) to the Latin catus amat piscds, sed non vult tingere plantas (a cat likes fish, but doesn’t like to get its paws wet).

The key point here is that the first half of Martin Chuzzlewit  (where our passage appears)was initially serialized  in 1843,  thus antedating the Ware/Partridge date.  And if the proverb had occurred literatim, it would antedate matters no further.  But as it stands, we can deduce that the adage was already in wide circulation among Dickens’ anticipated readership, well before 1843:  else he could not have counted on them to get the reference:  and without that, the passage falls flat.

[Psychostylistic footnote]  It is the very paradoxical absurdity of the original adage, that tempts Dickens to toy with it.  For after all, ducks do just fine in thunderstorms, much better than do cats (or the proverbial “drowned rat”) -- rain being, as the expression has it, “nice weather for ducks”.    

Visual proof that ducks don't mind the rain

In just such a fashion does Wodehouse (through his character Bertie Wooster) play, in novel after novel, with the speech in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, that ends “like quills upon the fretful porpentine”.  Or, at a humbler level, such dimestore wit as hasta la pasta (for hasta la vista).
(For our own discourse upon said porpentine, click here.)

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