Some etymological musings on “milkshake duck”

The Macquarie Dictionary of Australian English announced this week that it chose milkshake duck as its 2017 Word of the Year. As it defines the term, a milkshake duck is

a person who is initially viewed positively by the media but it then discovered to have something questionable about them which causes a sharp decline in their popularity.

The selection committee explains their decision:

Even if you don’t know the word, you know the phenomenon. Milkshake duck stood out as being a much needed term to describe something we are seeing more and more of, not just on the internet but now across all types of media. It plays to the simultaneous desire to bring someone down and the hope that they won’t be brought down. In many ways it captures what 2017 has been about. There is a hint of tall poppy syndrome in there, which we always thought was a uniquely Australian trait, but has been amplified through the internet and become universalised.

Tall poppy syndrome, as Amanda Laugesen writes for Oxford Dictionaries, is an Australianism that refers to

a tendency in Australian society to try and cut down people who are considered to be too successful or prominent (cutting the tall poppies down to size). Australians generally don’t like others to do too well, or (to use another popular Australian term) to ‘big-note’ themselves.

I agree with Macquarie that milkshake duck illustrates how we pillory people online just as quickly as we valorize them. But the underlying desire here, for me at least, isn’t an appetite to humble or humiliate, but a kind of desperate elevation of everyday quirkiness and innocence to a kind of moral heroism.

From an etymological perspective, milkshake duck is noteworthy because we can trace it to a singular act of creativity. On June 12, 2016, comic artist @pixelatedboat tweeted an imaginary internet fable:

It’s hard for coinages to catch on; most of our words emerge from an ancient soup of sound, making successful neologisms stand out. 

I am reminded here of the eminent etymologist Anatoly Liberman in his Word Origins…And How We Know Them, musing on daisy, from the Old English for “day’s eye”:

Who coined the charming word: a child, a poet? When, in what circumstances, and why, if some other name of that flower had, most likely, existed? The moment of creation is beyond recovery. Nor can we learn the name of the person who enriched English with such a wonderful word—once an image of rare beauty, a joy forever, though now, to use a technical term, a mere disguised compound. Yet, as pointed out several times in the preceding pages, every word owes it existence to an individual act of creativity. It is the same with daeges ēage from Anglo-Saxon England as with hot dog from New York City. Surely, a sausage in a soft roll was not called this by ancient people who venerated the dog and held a festival in its honor in the middle of summer, on hot days. Some cook, vendor, cartoonist, or comedian must have likened a sausage to a dog. Other people first laughed at the phrase and then adopted it. Today we use it unthinkingly without any canine associations. The history of the hot dog has been investigated in detail, but the identity of the “wordsmith” and the impulse behind the name remain partly unknown.

But such is the viral power of social media—and such was the need for a term for this phenomenon as it spread into 2017. And such was the perfect absurdity of @pixelatedboat’s little milkshake duck fiction. Milkshake duck has also wriggled into our grammar, becoming verbed, e.g., to get or be milkshake-ducked.

Milkshake duck certainly captures the 2017 zeitgeist, but it also brought a bit of fun and lightness to the Word of the Year ritual, which largely, and rightfully, intoned more serious notes for serious times.

Oxford Dictionaries was watching milkshake duck, too, in 2017, selecting it as a runner-up for its Word of the Year, youthquake. Here’s a roundup of some of the other winners from around the world:

  • American Dialect Society, fake news
  • Merriam-Webster, feminism
  •, complicit
  • Cambridge Dictionary, populism
  • Collins Dictionary, fake news
  • Geoff Nunberg, tribal(ism)
  • Mary Schmich, reckoning
  • Nancy Friedman, reckoning
  • Louis Menad, #
  • Australian National Dictionary Centre, Kwaussie
  • Zurich University of Applied Sciences, #MeToo and harcèlement (harassment)
  • Society for German Language, Jamaika-Aus (Jamaica-Out)
  • Taiwanese CTBC Foundation for Arts and Culture and the United Daily News, 茫 (mang, “confusion”)
  • Japan Kanji Aptitude Testing Foundation, 北 (kita, “north”)
  • Jiyukokuminsha, sontaku (“the proactive anticipation of a person’s wish before an explicit order is given”)

And these 38 gems from Sweden, including döstädning (“death cleaning”), which I discussed on Oxford Dictionaries.   

m ∫ r ∫

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