Monday, May 23, 2011


I'm watching Rachel Maddow at the moment, and they just played back an old ad from the Johnson-Barry Goldwater presidential election. Someone had mentioned 'that old canard'. Realized of course that I have no idea what a canard is. I think of it as meaning that old saw or in this context, that old trick or even strategy. But what is it really? For some unknown reason, canard makes me think of ducks.

Maybe I'm mixing it up with mallards.


Okay--right about the duck, wrong about the phrase. I should have known the word's origin anyway. We used to sell pate de canard at the cheese shop I worked in many years ago, and I have enjoyed it many a time since. Sure, I usually refer to it as duck pate, but still.

An old canard is not an old saw, though. It's a false or unfounded story, a groundless rumor or belief. It comes from the French canard, which means hoax. Many seem to think it comes from the phrase vendre un canard à moitié--to half sell a duck, which means to cheat. The story behind this phrase is lost in history. 

I found an interesting alternate version in a book called The Gaelic etymology of the languages of western Europe by Charles Mackay.

The natural history of the newspaper canard could more satisfactorily dealt with if authentic were forthcoming as to the origin of the term. It is to be feared, however, that the accepted story of the first canard--the typical canard to which all canards of a later period to be worthy of the name should present at least a general resemblance--must itself be regarded as a canard. The first canard, so runs the legend, was the tale of twenty ducks, all characterized by a ducklike greediness; while one of the number exhibited, under peculiar circumstances, a voracity akin to that which our own journals, in the dull season of the year, are still in the habit of attributing to the pike. To test not only the appetite and capacity of ducks, but also their disposition to eat one another, the first of the band of twenty was slain, and his remains distributed among  his companions, who hastened to gobble him up, feathers and all. A second duck, one of the nineteen who had just swallowed their fellow-creature--was now killed and like the previous victime, cut up into small pieces for the benefit of the survivors. Duck number two having been thus disposed of , a third was treated in a similar fashion. A like fate awaited duck number four: until, one after another, nineteen ducks had been sacrificed on the altar of science, and for the advantage, in respect to immediate gratification, of duck the twentieth. This strange story was quoted from one French journal to another and was generally disbelieved, so that the 'voracity of the duck,' and ultimately the word 'duck,'  got to be looked upon as the appropriate title of absurd newspaper journalism of every kind. The pointless fable of the twenty ducks (unless, indeed, the last all-devouring survivor was meant to prefigure such credulous newspaper readers as might be able to gulp down the preposterous fiction), after dying out in France, was revived in America, where the pretended derivation of the word canard, in the sense of newspaper hoax, from the duck story as above related, is sanctioned by the authority of Webster.--
Pall Mall Gazette, March 2, 1876.

There is also a French plane called a canard, because the French thought it looked like a duck when it flew, but I think I'll leave you to look that one up for yourselves...

*Being me, I forgot my intention of my last blog, which was to highlight some other blog before I go. Fortunately, I have a great suggestion for today, namely Nathaneal Green's  500 Words on Words . His blogs are always interesting and meticulous reflections on language and many things language related. Just by chance, he has a new post up where he's asking YOU for reading suggestions. So go give him some. You'll get points, and maybe even an AWARD. I just got a great one. Okay, there's no money involved but you'll still be happy that you did.


  1. There's a weird work of art in the Hospice de Beaune called, though I can find now reference online to verify this, "La Chasse au Canard". The caption explains that nobody can make head or tail of how most people in the Middle Ages thought and that trying to do reverse engineering on their iconography is a thankless task.

    One of my French friends once gave a long explanation of the origins of the word but it was so boring I cannot remember what it was.

    "Le Canard enchaîné", the French version of "Private Eye" used bring the house down in certain circles and probably still does, but many French people tend to think it goes too far. This is not due to
    coarseness but because French libel laws are so strict, the only way to attack public figures is through malice and vitriol.

    This post could be called "Whyaduck" as I always think of the incomprehensible Marx Brothers when the subject of ducks comes up.


  2. Kathleen, I hope I would have gotten the word right in another context.

    I actually took the trouble to type out the Pall Mall story, since I couldn't cut and paste, since I enjoyed this older style of newspaper prose and content so much. I'd probably read the paper more if it was all like that.

  3. Maria,

    I came across Le Canard Enchaine in the course of research here. As I can't read French, I didn't really get much further than that, so thanks.

    I would like to see that painting.

    Many people seem to think the word canard comes from the Old French quanart, "probably echoic of a duck's quack".

    Which of course leaves me wondering why we call a duck a duck.

    One of my ears has been clogged up for awhile after a cold, which has made a lot of my experience a lot more like that Marx Brothers bit than usual.

  4. Just commenting to add that I forgot to add a blog rec at the end of the post, and now that has been corrected.

  5. You're not missing much by not seeing the French duck in question. It looked more like Mother Goose as it was made before the use of perspective that the Renaissance artists encouraged.

    Also, since I can't find any reference to this image (France is full of ducks) it has not attracted much attention... though now I begin to wonder if it was in Beaune after all.

    For anybody wanting to learn CSS there is a site called

    For head colds, gargling with a mild solution of cayenne pepper works for me. It will also, being so rough, blow your brain, I'm afraid.

    A good spice to use with any canard.

  6. Yes,I believe the pate we used to sell was pate de canard au poivre vert.It was good.

    I'll keep both Quackit and the cayenne pepper in mind for future reference. Both seem like they might come in handy.

    If I ever get to Beaune, I'll check it out. There are plenty of images of the architecture and it looks quite interesting.

  7. I love this post and have returned to tell you it makes me feel less guilty about eating a wonderful duck salad at the Park Grill in Millennium Park in Chicago. But after this, I am definitely going back to being a vegetarian. Ish. (My kids laugh.)

  8. Well, since you have, Kathleen, I'll tell a comforting tale. A few years ago, one of my friends went to see a movie that was big at the time about birds migrating. In it, she learned that migrating ducks mate for life. She was so moved that she vowed to never eat duck again.

    Her resolution lasted till dinner of that very same night, when as it happened we were all out to a fabulous meal in honor of another friend's birthday.

    She later felt remorse, but I have to say that if even a grain of this reported tale is true, the ducks are more to be censured than pitied.

  9. I meant the Pall Mall Gazette tale, not hers, by the way.

  10. I think I missed the deadline for Nathaneal Green's competition. I thought my suggestion would be worth a few points.
    Detectives Beyond Borders
    "Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home"

  11. No, I don't think he's gotten back to it yet. He's probably off doing something fun for the holiday weekend.

    Unlike me. Although I do have old friends coming to town on Tuesday.

  12. I hope he throws a few points my way for coming up with one name that serves for three authors.

  13. @Seana, thanks for the plug! I have to also admit that I had no idea what a canard was. At all.

    It's always nice to pick up a brand-new word! Thanks for that.

    Peter, Seana was right. I was just away from the computer for a bit, but thank you very much for your suggestions, because, yes, they did earn you a few points and a special award!

  14. Yes, and I hope that your understanding of the word will be better than mine has been, lo, these many years.

  15. This site is very useful for definitions:


    If you are interested in French newspapers, they are thoroughly analysed in English speaking media, as here:


    I used have French TV (before cutbacks put paid to any media contact with continental Europe apart from the Internet) and the Beregovoy affair in the 1990's caused uproar.

    Many French people are very uninformed about the world outside the Hexagone. I used find their views of Ireland amusing... but they have become increasingly bizarre, probably based on newspaper reports, many of them canards, that whine on about misery and poverty.

  16. Thanks for those links. I actually have Word of the Day, but unfortunately, I am not the kind of person who can just get interested in words arbitrarily. They have to come up for me in some way. I know that following that logic, I really shouldn't expect anyone to read this blog, but then, I never did have a high expectation of that anyway.

    The Speigel link looks useful and interesting. I don't know what the Hexagone is, though. I mean, I have a general idea of the six sided aspect, but I'm sure it conjures up something more specific to the French.

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