Heard on NPR this morning: President-elect Barack Obama resigned his Illinois Senate seat yesterday, choosing to prepare for his transition to the White House rather than spend his time in a lame duck session of Congress.
Good for him, I thought. Almost nothing gets accomplished in lame duck sessions of anything, especially a lame duck session of Congress. This is actually a good thing, though, when you think about it. Recently defeated U.S. senators and representatives are likely to have some serious attitude issues, and are not the people you want to put in charge of the nation’s future. So the less accomplished, the better.
Best to coast the term out, and wait until the new crop of fresh-faced and eager legislators come into office. Right?
But as I thought about this story on my way into work, it occurred to me that I had no idea why it was called a “lame duck” session. Where on earth did such a phrase come from? What does it really mean, and why is it used today to describe "office-holders who have lost an election but have not yet left office?"
You might think that the origins of a phrase as well-known as “lame duck” would be well-documented, but you’d be wrong. The first use of the term I could find, at least as it applies to politicians, took place on January 14, 1763 in The Congressional Globe, a Capitol Hill newspaper, which stated that
In no event could it be justly obnoxious to the charge of being a receptacle of ‘lame ducks’ or broken down politicians.
Now, I’m not really sure what that particular sentence means, but it’s pretty clear that the terms “lame duck” and “broken down” were politically synonymous nearly 150 years ago.
The actual origin of the term apparently has nothing to do with politics, though. To the contrary, the phrase seems to have originated in the London Stock Market centuries ago, and refers to investors who were unable to pay their debts. In 1761, for example, Horace Walpole’s Letters to Sir Horace Mann includes the query:
Do you know what a Bull, and a Bear, and a Lame Duck are?
In 1772, in the Edinburgh Advertiser:
Yesterday being the settling day for India stock, the bulls had a balance to pay to the bears to the amount of 23 per cent. Only one lame duck waddled out of the alley, and that for no greater a sum than 20,000.
The bull and the bear are obvious terms, still in use today. The lame duck, not so much, at least as related to Wall Street.
To quote the revered Marx Brothers, though, “Why a Duck?” There doesn’t seem to be much of an answer on this, although some commentators believe it can be traced back to cricket, otherwise known as English baseball.
When a cricket batman is out without scoring any runs, it seems, he is said to be “out for a duck,” with the zero on the scoreboard resembling a duck’s egg. In the United States, the term would probably be “goose egg,” but you get the idea. Anyway, the term first appeared in Selkirk's Guide to Cricket Grounds (1867), which described the breaking of a scoring drought
If he makes one run he has 'broken his duck's egg'.
Now, it might just be me, but it seems like there's something vaguely naughty about that phrase. You think?