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Where Did the Term "Get Your Ducks in a Row" Come From?

Ducks swimming in a row.
A duckling, the inspiration for the phrase "get your ducks in a row.".
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  • Last Modified Date: 18 November 2014
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To get one's ducks in a row essentially means to ensure all of the small details or elements are accounted for and in their proper positions before embarking on a new project. A defense attorney, for example, may spend much of his or her time making sure all of the evidence and witnesses are presented in a precise, effective order. A salesman may get all of his or her "ducks in a row" by rehearsing his sales presentation beforehand. When a person is fully prepared for any eventuality and has every element in place, he or she can indeed be said to have his or her ducks in a row.

Etymologically speaking, your guess as to the origins of this saying is about as good as any other. There are at least three plausible theories surrounding the origin of "get your ducks in a row," plus some others which, at least, put up an interesting argument. Some sources suggest the phrase was not even used in print until the late 1970s, although a magazine article from 1932 did suggest "getting our economic ducks in a row."

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The most popular theory suggests that "ducks in a row" came from the world of sports, specifically bowling. Early bowling pins were often shorter and thicker than modern pins, which led to the nickname ducks. Before the advent of automatic resetting machines, these "duck pins" would be manually put back into place between bowling rounds. Therefore, having one's ducks in a row would be a metaphor for having all of the bowling pins organized and properly placed before sending the next ball down the lane. Many bowling alleys still offer "duck pin" lanes with smaller bowling balls and shorter pins.

Another theory comes from the world of nature. Mother ducks often corral their young offspring into manageable straight lines before traveling over land or water. Any stragglers or escapees would be noticed as long as the integrity of this line is maintained. The idea of getting all of one's ideas or ingredients or team members in one organized line would be similar to a mother duck getting all of her literal ducks in a row. One concern with this theory is the use of the word ducks, since baby ducks are more correctly identified as ducklings or even chicks. The common expression suggests adult ducks, not necessarily younger ducklings.

There are also sources which argue the "ducks in a row" element refers to a carnival game or two. One popular carnival game involves the player using a small caliber rifle or air gun to knock down moving targets. Quite often these targets are in the shape of ducks, and a conveyor belt system makes sure the duck targets are aligned in a consistent row. It is possible that the expression came from the benefit of having all of the targets (ducks) arrive in a predictable and organized order.

A different carnival game uses plastic ducks which float in a water-filled track as players attempt to select the ones with high-value prize codes hidden underneath. These plastic ducks are generally presented in a moving row for easier selection by the players.

It is also possible that the expression came from the natural flight formation of ducks as they move through the sky. The most efficient arrangement is a V-formation behind the leader, which allows each duck to take advantage of reduced wind resistance. Having all of one's metaphorical ducks in a row would be just as efficient and logical as flying in such an organized formation.

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anon975474
Post 21

I am 65. As a young man in my early 20's, I worked in the shipbuilding industry. To develop the lines of the hull for building the frames, a "spline" was used, and the small odd shaped weights, that had a fine point protruding in front which held the spline in place, were called ducks. The "ducks" had to be lined up correctly to make a smooth curve replicating the line of the ships hull.

I was told by the old Norweigan Naval architect I worked for that this was the origin of the term “ducks in a row.” He, at that time, was in his 70's, and earned his naval architecture degree after beginning in a Norweigan shipyard as a young boy, then working in each craft until he was moved into the engineering department, and finally to the actual design of ships themselves. Either way, it stands for having the details in order.

anon339330
Post 20

I like the spline theory. Also, 60 years ago my grandmother from Kentucky often talked of getting her ducks in a row. About 1982, my mother observed Balinese farmers calling their ducks to a post at the edge of a field where the ducks had been eating the insects. After getting his ducks in a row, the farmer would lead them in a row around the edge of the field back to their pen for the night. I'm still trying to get my ducks in a row!

anon328837
Post 19

A duck (a.k.a. "cairn") is a pile of three or more stones used to mark a route across a barren place. You must be able to line up the duck you have passed with the duck you are at and the next duck ahead before you can safely move forward (i.e., not get lost).

anon157187
Post 17

I have been told that "getting your ducks in a row" was a phrase used by waterfowl market hunters in the Chesapeake Bay area.

The market hunter would put out grain in a long row to bait an area that he was hunting and then position himself in a blind or punt boat at one end of the row of grain. Waterfowl would come into the bait and line up in front of the hunter to eat the grain. The hunter could kill many ducks with one shot. Of course, he wanted to wait to fire until he "had his ducks in a row".

anon152089
Post 16

I was at our city park yesterday and saw about 50 black ducks all in a row, standing by the lake about equal distance apart and looking towards the water.

When I saw that, I wondered if that was where the phrase came from. I wish I could attach the picture here for everyone to see. I had never seen such a sight ever before and found it very interesting.

Thanks for letting me share my experience with you.

anon143992
Post 15

Ducks in a row comes from ship building. A duck is a device that holds the keel in place while building a ship. The first step in building a ship is to get the ducks in straight row thus ensuring a straight keel. Today, they use lasers to ensure the ducks are in a straight row. The phrase goes back to wooden sailing ships.

anon114234
Post 14

It was told to me by my father that to get your ducks in a row came from commercial duck hunting in the Eastern Seaboard of North America where they hunted Black Ducks. They used to have 8 gauge shotguns that were mounted on the fronts of boats or floats.

The hunters remained hidden until they had the ducks lined up or grouped in the row that the shotgun pellets would hit and they would fire both barrels of the gun remotely by using a string. That's what an old timer told this old timer.

anon110096
Post 13

the phrase "get the ducks in a row" comes from naval architecture, not car design, though arrowhead77 had the right idea.

when drawing, but more especially when lofting (transferring a drawn design into full-scale-and-sized lofting templates, known as station and chine patterns), a designer sighted down a spline held down by the lead ducks as described by arrowhead77, and when one had achieved a fair curve, or the drawn design curve, without bulges or hollows, then it was said the designer had "all his ducks in a row".

anon90307
Post 12

What about the theory that it originates from the trade currency throughout Europe - Ducat, shortened to Ducs or Ducks (Urban Slang - Duckets). Make sure one has enough money, including necessary preparations to obtain it, to move forward with a purchase.

DSciphire. Ant

anon80204
Post 11

I have observed adult domesticated ducks (the birds) travel in single file--of approximately 30 or 40 feet over a distance over several thousand feet. As soon as I saw this phenomenon, I knew what getting your ducks in a row meant.

anon80155
Post 10

This is a very well written, informative article. Thanks wisegeek!

anon75113
Post 9

I always picture a mother duck crossing the street with her baby ducks. As a mother myself, I relate to this image.

anon64958
Post 8

I always assumed it had something to do with hunting. Waiting to get your ducks in a row would get more with a single shot, saving expenditure on ammunition.

anon62762
Post 7

Yep, derivation is from pin-setters. My father, ashes many years ago, was a pin-setter when he was a young man, in the 20's. He used 'Duck in a Row' for as long as I can remember.

anon57242
Post 6

I concur with arrowhead77 definition of getting your ducks in a row. I too, come from an engineering/drafting background and was taught that the origin of getting your ducks in a row was from drawing loft lines for ships and other purposes including aircraft and automotive. An example of drafting ducks, also known as lofting ducks can be found online.

anon34757
Post 5

I remember this coming from the carnivals, where the plastic ducks were lined up in order of a row across the back. Once they were lined up you can began shooting at them to see how many you could hit. This goes back about seventy years, which is almost my age. -Sylvia

anon34438
Post 4

I'm no ornithologist, but I do live in the migration flight path known as Minnesota, and I have to say that I have yet to see any more than a pair of ducks flying together at any one time. I have only seen geese flying in the V formation that was discussed.

So my money's on the bowling origin, especially since bowling would have been a favorite pastime of midwestern engineering types during the sixties.

bluefire
Post 3

I have to subscribe to the theory that Mother Nature originally fostered the term. Even as arrowhead77 explains, those engineers wouldn't have used the word "ducks" if it weren't for the Real ducks, and the alignment of the splines factor seems also to "line up" with the lines of ducklings behind a mother duck. It just seems the most logical explanation for the origin of the term. Without mother ducks and their ducklings in a row behind them, it seems there would be no such term as getting all your ducks in a row. At the very least, the origin of the term has to have been inspired by Mother Nature.

arrowhead77
Post 2

When I was a young automotive designer in Detroit in the early 60’s, I was told what ducks in a row meant by an engineer.

In those days, engineers still used drawings to layout car designs. They worked on large horizontal surfaces which were coated with a white material on which they would scribe accurate lines to determinate the cars styling. In order to draw long sweeping lines, they used plastic flexible splines which were bent to follow the lines and they used weights to hold the splines in place before they scribed the lines. These weights were heavy, lead weights with a metal hook that held the splines in place so they could be traced. Their shape resembled ducks. Therefore, putting your ducks in a row meant to hold the spline so as to make a nice clean curve before scribing.

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