How did “lame duck” take flight?

Technically, President Barack Obama is not a “lame duck” until after the election in November. But with a gridlocked Congress, an unprecedented presidential campaign, and a sudden Supreme Court vacancy, pundits, the press, and politicos have been already quacking the fowl phrase a few months into the president’s final year.

There is even an egregiously false “lame duck” clause making the rounds online; citing Article III Section IV of the Constitution, which does not exist, it claims “the President may not nominate a candidate for the Supreme Court if the vacancy shall occur in the year leading up to an election, when the candidate be a ‘lame duck.'” The phrase lame duck did exist when the constitution was drafted, as we’ll see, but many decades passed before we started using in this way.

So, how did the expression lame duck take flight?

Lame duck

It wasn’t politics that first gave wing to the expression lame duck. It was stock brokering – or rather, bad stock brokering.

The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) takes lame duck back to 18th-century broker slang for a “defaulter” in the (now) London Stock Exchange. Brokers who cannot pay off their losses, so it goes, are like ducks that can’t walk. Helping to further explain the metaphor, the dictionary cites David Garrick in a prologue to a comedy by Samuel Foote: “Change-Alley bankrupters waddle out lame ducks!” The passage goes on to describe all sorts of colorful terms the papers were apparently using for gamesome folk: “The gaming fools are doves, the knaves are rooks, / Change-Alley bankrupters waddle out lame ducks! But, Ladies, blame not your gaming spouses, / For you, as well as they, have pidgeon-houses!”

This is not the earliest evidence the OED gives for lame duck, though. It first cites a letter written by English scholar and politician Horace Walpole: “Do you know what a Bull, and a Bear, and a Lame Duck, are?” Indeed, the duck is not the only animal in the stock market’s menagerie; stockjobbers have been referring to bears and bulls since the early 1700s. In his letter, Walpole expresses dismay for moneyed interests in conflicts with the Spanish at the time. He goes on to answer his question: “Nay, nor I either; I am only certain they are neither animals nor fowl, but are extremely interested in the new subscription. I don’t believe I apply it right here; but I feel as if I should be a lame duck if the Spaniards take the vessel that has my Altar on board.” (Altar? Walpole famously collected art and historical artifacts, if I reckon correctly. Subscription I assume refers to some sort of financial investment opportunity.)

For all of lame duck’s disability, it definitely winged its way across the pond. The OED finds it in US political contexts as early as a January 1863 edition of the Congressional Globe, deriding the United States Court of Claims: “In no event…could it be greatly obnoxious to the charge of being a receptacle of ‘lame ducks’ or broken down politics.” Lame duck easily jumps from maimed finances to crippled politics.

By the early 1900s, we see lame duck flocking to its current usage, the session after an election before a new office-holder takes their seat. It was used especially of Congress at first. In 1910, the New York Evening Post noted that reporters chattered of the “‘Lame Duck Alley’ …a screened-off corridor in the White House offices, where statesmen who went down in the recent electoral combat may meet.” Ducks, for the good of your name, you should really start avoiding alleyways.

Ratified in 1933, the 20th Amendment to the US Constitution is also known as the Lame Duck Amendment: It ended a president and vice president’s term on January 20 and Congress on January 3, moved up from March 4. This prevents lame ducks from being lamer ducks, shall we say. Also, office-holders just don’t need as much time to get ready for their service as they did centuries back, I imagine.

A picture from the National Archives of the Joint Resolution ratified as the 20th Amendment. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

Lame duck has been used of broken-down ships, commercial enterprises, and persons, more generally. The OED also notes a related expression predating its first citation of lame duck: “to come by the lame post (of news),” to be “behind the times” in the 17th century.

Today, I hear lame duck usually characterizing the powerlessness of a president in a final term. But, in an age when being a politician can be like being a professional fundraiser, a lame duck can reassemble that other national bird: the eagle, for a lame-duck president’s wings aren’t clipped by running for re-election. That is, if your opponents aren’t out hunting.

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