Where does “ducks in a row” come from…and how did they get so organized?
by Tricia Reynolds
We wanted a name that would quickly and visually communicate our promise to our customers — we are the exceptionally organized “mother duck” that you can count on to guide the accounting and bookkeeping needs of your small business. Well, based on the many conversations Ducks In A Row has started, I’d say, “mission accomplished.”
But let’s take a closer look. Although for most people, the phrase means a person who is well organized and ready to take on any task, there is quite a bit of mystery surrounding its etymology. You might be surprised at the many theories surrounding it. And how they apply to our business.
“To have one’s ducks in a row” implies preparedness and efficiency. An attorney may “have his or her ducks in a row” by deliberately putting together evidence and witnesses for a case. A chef may “have his or her ducks in a row” by carefully preparing ingredients and adding them to a dish in a specific order.
Until recently, it was thought that the phrase originated in the 1970s, notably in Stephen King’s novel The Stand, published in 1978, where King used the phrase, “line up one’s ducks.” It was later found in a 1932 edition of the Washington Post. And the earliest known reference is from a November 1889 issue of The Plaindealer.
For some, the phrase conjures an image of bowling pins neatly aligned at the end of a bowling alley. In the early 1900s, bowling pins were much shorter and fatter than the ones we know today and were often called “ducks” due to their water-fowl like appearance. These were also the days before automatic resetting machines so the pins had to be manually reset in neat rows between rounds. Having “one’s ducks in a row” meant the bowler was ready to send the next ball down the alley.
Others speculate that the idiom comes from pool. When a ball is lined up directly in front of a pocket it is called a “duck” or “sitting duck.” A pool player with “one’s ducks in a row” has all easy shots with balls lined up in front of the pockets, and hopefully also an easy victory.
The phrase could also come from the popular carnival game in which players shoot at metal ducks for a prize. Likewise, in the sport of hunting duck, “having one’s ducks in a row” means the skilled huntsman was able to take out multiple birds with one shot.
Perhaps the most obvious origin of the phrase is from nature and it’s the symbology we use here at Ducks In A Row: imagine a serene picture of a mother duck carefully wading into a lake, her ducklings following behind her in a neat line.
Or, the flying “V” formation ducks often travel the skies in. This ingenious formation allows each duck flying behind the leader to experience less wind resistance, allowing them to fly further with less energy. This “V” formation is highly efficient and organized, just like the phrase implies.
While etymologists have not arrived on a unanimous origin of the idiom, “to have one’s ducks in a row” is now synonymous in Western culture with efficiency, organization, and preparedness.
It’s what we put into practice every day. And we strive for this kind of organized perfection so our clients will be better poised for success.