Ducks in a Row: Make Way for Ducklings… & Bowling… & Billiards

“No, you’re not ready to start the project yet. Get all your ducks in a row first.”

This phrase became popular in the 1980’s in the office environment & since then, it has become quite the cliché. If you have your ducks in row, it means that all your affairs are in order & that you’re ready to proceed with whatever you have to do.

Before I explain where the phrase came from, I’ll give you a little history:

For a long time, it was thought that Stephen King first used a form the phrase in his novel, The Stand. Instead of using the phrase, “get your ducks in a row,” he writes, “Line up your ducks.” It was generally thought that the phrase quickly evolved incorrectly, as do many popular culture references (Google phrases like, “Beam me up, Scotty,” or “Play it again, Sam.”), however it was then discovered in a 1932 edition of The Washington Post.That was the earliest known example until it was found again in an 1889 edition of The Plaindealer. The author writes, “In the meantime the Democrats are getting their ducks in a row, and their ticket is promised to be very strong.”

I’ve said this before & I’ll say it again. Oral traditions come before written ones, so it probably was spoken for some time before that article.

Now you know how long we’ve been using it on paper, so now it’s time to find out where it comes from.

The first is the easiest & most straightforward. Getting your ducks in a row is a possible reference to how a mother duck organizes her ducklings in a neat row before entering a hazardous environment, such as swimming across a lake or walking across a road. Look at any family of ducks in the spring. They all follow the mother in a neat line.


A mother duck with her ducklings.

That seems like it might be the answer, right? Well, hold on. There’s another one & it comes from bowling. We’ve all heard of tenpin, but there’s a much older for which uses small, stout pins & balls that fit in your hand. It was played outside & the pins were known as ducks. Eventually, it moved inside & once there, it gave birth to tenpin, which is the type of bowling you know. Duck-pin still remains as a lesser known, yet popular type of bowling, though & now that the game is inside & bowling allies have been modernized, the pins are set up by machine. Before 1936, teenage boys were hired to set up the pins. It proved to be a fairly dangerous job because of flying bowling balls & bowling pins, but back then, what children’s job wasn’t dangerous? Anyway, the player couldn’t bowl until the pinsetter set up all the pins in their rows. The general consensus among etymologists & dictionaries is that this is why we say it.


Pin boys set up bowling pins in Brooklyn in 1910.
Photo courtesy of National Child Labor Committee collection at the Library of Congress

Other explanations include shooting galleries at carnivals & billiards (a ball sitting in front of the pocket on a pool table is called a duck).

Well, there you have it. Another mystery almost solved. Just make sure you have all your ducks in a row the next time you go bowling.

Now you know; you’re welcome.


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Filed under Etymology

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