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.

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As pumpkin spice yields to gingerbread, Christmas is approaching, which means lists: wish lists, holiday party guest lists, Santa’s list of the naughty and nice, and best-of and year-end lists, trailed, of course, by their runners-up on shortlists.

To that effect, Oxford Dictionaries has already unveiled its winner for my favorite year-end tradition, the Word of the Year. This year, they crowned vape, short for “vaporize” or “vapor” (or “vapour,” depending on where you are writing) and referring to electronic cigarettes. The word really picked up steam this year, if you study the case they make for it.

Speaking of “steam,” where does vapor come from?


Passing into English from the French, the word vape has not drifted too far its root in the Latin vapor, meaning “steam” or “heat” (especially from the sun). Today, it may get more scientific use, but it’s first attested around 1374 in Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde:

As man, brid, best, fisshe, herbe, and greene tree / The feele in tymes with vapour eterne.

Here, The is referring to, essentially, Love, deified, but we’ll find a way back to that.

Poetry, though, like many etymologies, can wax metaphorical. So, too, with vapor. Related to vapor is vapid, whose earliest meanings were “flat,” as in beverages. Latin has vapidus–”flat” or “spoiled”–related to vappa, “sour wine,” having lost its vapor, its spirits, so we surmise. (A secondary meaning of “brat” for vappa is also cited. Think “spoiled.”)

Some, like Eric Partridge, see life in a connection to the Latin fatuus, “foolish,” or “tasteless” when describing food. The word gives English fatuous. As Latin was evolving into the Romance languages, however, this fatuus may have been confused with vapidus to yield the French adjective fade, variously denoting “pale,” “dull,” “tasteless,” or “vapid.” English picked up the word, too, originally describing faded colors. The verb in both French and then English came quickly thereafter.


Our deeper knowledge of vapor has indeed faded. It might originate in the Proto-Indo-European *kwēpwhich the American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots proposes means “smoke,” cook,” “move violently,” or “be agitated.” Walter Skeat defines the root as “to reek” or “to breathe forth.” In terms of cognates, Greek has kapnós for smoke; various Lithuanian words for “breath,” “smell,” and “perfume” are also cited.

The root word certainly brings evaporation to my mind, but it also may have yielded concupiscencecovet, and cupid, which, in all their biblical and mythological valences, go back to the Latin cupere. Boiling over in desire, the verb means “to long for” or “be eager for”–just like so many are for a deep draw from their vape.

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