lame duck

Discuss word origins and meanings.
Post Reply

lame duck

Post by Ken Greenwald » Tue Dec 09, 2008 8:07 pm

In last week’s issue of Time Magazine, columnist Joe Klein wrote the following on our fearless former leader. Love the article, but it's too bad our country had to live through it:
<2008 “The Lamest Duck. Bush’s disappearing act during the economic crisis is a fitting coda to a failed presidency.

We have ‘only one President at a time,’ Barack Obama said in his debut press conference. Normally that would be a safe assumption. . . That we have slightly more than one President for the moment [[that’s Obama + ~ 0]] is mostly a consequence of the extraordinary economic times. . . . And yet this final humiliation seems particularly appropriate for George W. Bush. At the end of a presidency of stupefying ineptitude, he has become the lamest of all possible ducks. . . This is a presidency that has wobbled between [these] two poles — overweening arrogance and paralytic incompetence. The latter has held sway these past few months as the economy has crumbled. It is too early to rate the performance of Bush's economic team, but we have more than enough evidence to say, definitively, that at a moment when there was a vast national need for reassurance, the President himself was a cipher. Yes, he's a lame duck with an Antarctic approval rating . . . In the end, though, it will not be the creative paralysis that defines Bush. It will be his intellectual laziness, at home and abroad. . . He is less than President now, and that is appropriate. He was never very much of one.”—Time Magazine, 8 December, page 27>
And, out of deference to the office of a sitting President (who can now only marvel at the respect paid to Rodney Dangerfield), I have in the above, excised the really uncomplimentary parts of Klein’s comments. (<;)

RANDOM HOUSE WEBSTER’S UNABRIDGED DICTIONARY

LAME DUCK noun (2 words) and adjective (often hyphenated):

1) An elected official or group of officials, as a legislator, continuing in office during the period between an election defeat and a successor's assumption of office.

2) A president who is completing a term of office and chooses not to run or is ineligible to run for reelection.

3) A person finishing a term of employment after a replacement has been chosen.

4) Anything soon to be supplanted by another that is more efficient, economical, etc.

5) A person or thing that is disabled, helpless, ineffective, or inefficient

6) A person who has lost a great deal of money in speculations on the stock market
___________________________

LAME DUCK refers to an injured bird which is unable to care for itself and waddles around aimlessly as it awaits its imminent death from predators or starvation. In the United States this expression is usually political in nature, while in the U.K. it is financial. But in both cases its meaning is a person or thing that is powerless or in need of help.

In the mid-18th-century Britain, the expression lame duck was first used to describe a stockbroker, and later any businessman, who could not pay his debts and who was thus ‘financially crippled,’ although still conducting business. It is interesting to note that prior to 1773 the equivalent of our Wall Street was a London street known as Exchange Alley, an early venue for the trading of stocks and commodities and a forerunner of the London Stock Exchange. It was here that stockbrokers were first divided up into the two classes referred to as ‘bears’ and ‘bulls’ (see 1761, 1806-7 quotes below). And it was here that a third class of stock exchange animal metaphor was born, those who “waddled out of the Alley!,” the lame duck. – cleaned out, unable to meet their financial obligations, and powerless (see 1771 quote below).

From the mid 19th century on, the phrase lame duck was used in the U.S. with reference to politicians in the final period of office after the election of their successor. These officials would generally tend to have less political clout, since those who were elected would be less inclined to offer them their cooperation. However, it is not known if this U.S. usage was a borrowing from the British financial term or if was independently born over here, which it easily could have been. There was an old American woodsman’s saying (it was old in 1829 – see quote below), “Never waste powder on a dead duck.” From this the expression ‘dead duck’ became a popular slang expression, still in use today, for a person or thing that is useless, unsuccessful, done up, played out, not worth a straw, etc. And it is not a great stretch to think that some political writer with this older slang term in mind might have seen an opportunity for a suitable modification for those ducks (politicians) who, from November 4 until March 4, were not entirely dead but were mostly ineffectual, until their successors took over.

However, lame ducks who had been voted out of office or retired could, and did, still wield some power, often working some mischief (in the ‘Lame Duck Sessions of Congress’ and elsewhere) in their remaining days in office, especially if there were enough of them who were unscrupulous and bitter about their rejection at the polls. And since they knew that they were no longer accountable to the voters and would not be facing another election, they often engaged in shenanigans aimed at their own personal gain rather than toward the welfare of their constituents. Scandals involving bribery in exchange for votes and favors were not uncommon. And even presidents were not above making lame duck decisions, political appointments, pardons, etc. which they wouldn’t have dared to do under normal circumstances (To wit, Bill Clinton’s shameless pardon, with the aid of Obama’s Attorney General-elect, of convicted felon Mark Rich).

In 1933 Congress approved the 20th Amendment to the Constitution, popularly known as the Lame Duck Amendment. It provided that newly elected Senators and Congressmen would assume office on January 3 rather than March 4, thus reducing the lame duck period. It also provided that the President would be inaugurated on January 20 instead of March 4. This was a great improvement but unfortunately it did not quite put an end to the beloved presidential last-minute rape, loot, and pillage mode, with its ever-present presidential eleventh hour executive orders, pardons, . . . . . – Darwin would have to agree that if an endangered species can't make it on its own, it doesn't deserve to live. And toxic chemicals are not only great for business, but they're good for the digestion!

(Facts on File Encyclopedia of Word and Phrase Origins, Picturesque Expressions by Urdang, Morris Dictionary of Word and Phrase Origins, Oxford Dictionary of Idioms, A Hog on Ice by Funk, Heavens to Betsy! by Funk, Cassell’s Dictionary of Slang, Word Detective)
________________________________________________________________________

OXFORD ENGLISH DICTIONARY

LAME DUCK: a) A disabled person or thing: specifically (Stock Exchange slang): One who cannot meet his financial engagements; a defaulter. Also, short, duck.
<1761 “Do you know what a Bull, and a Bear, and a Lame Duck are?”—Letters to Horace Mann (1843), 28 December, I. page 60>

<1771 “Change-Alley bankrupts waddle out lame ducks!”—Prologue to Foote’s Maid of B. by D. Garrick>

<1806-7 “Attending at the Stock-exchange on settling-day amidst the quack of Ducks, the bellowings of Bulls, and the growls of Bears.”—The Miseries of Human Life (1826) by J. Beresford, XXII. xviii>

<1832 “Frauds of which a lame duck on the Stock exchange would be ashamed.”—Mirabeau (1860) by T. B. Macaulay, Miscellaneous, II. page 95>

<1889 “Do you think I have time to attend to every poor duck?”—Little Journey in the World by C. D. Warner, xvii>
LAME DUCK: (b) U.S. Politics, an office-holder who is not, or cannot be, re-elected; specifically (before 1933), a defeated member in the short session of Congress after a November election; also attributive; (c) a ship that is damaged, especially one left without a means of propulsion; (d) an industry, commercial firm, etc., that cannot survive without financial help, especially by means of a government subsidy.
<1829 “There is an old saying, ‘never waste your powder on a dead duck’; but we cannot avoid flashing away a few grains upon an old friend, Henry Clay.”—New York Courier, 15 June, page 2/1>

<1844 “Clay [[Henry]] [is] a dead political duck.”—The Life of Andrew Jackson (1937) by M. James, page 481>

<1863 “In no event . . . could it [sc. the Court of Claims] be justly obnoxious to the charge of being a receptacle of ‘lame ducks’ or broken down politicians.”—Congressional Glove, 14 January, page 307/1>

<1876 “A lame duck on the sea means a ship which has been more or less damaged while crossing the perilous ocean.”—The First Ten Years of a Sailor’s Life at Sea by C. Chapman, x. page 411>

<1910 “‘Lame Duck Alley’ . . . is the name they [sc. reporters] have given to a screened-off corridor in the White House offices, where statesmen who went down in the recent electoral combat may meet.”—New York Post, 8 December, page 8>

<1922 “Senator Norris is all for the plan ‘to have the convening of Congress moved up to avoid lame-duck Congresses.’”—New York Times, 6 December, page 18/2>

<1925 “The proposed Constitutional amendment . . . has been usually designated as the ‘lame-duck’ amendment.”—The Independent (Boston), 21 February, page 213/1>

<1932 A ‘lame duck’ Administration was in power, and a ‘lame duck’ Congress still in being.”—The Times (London), 14 December, page 13/2>

<1972 “The Economist calls lame ducks those industries whose survival is claimed to depend on government subsidy. In the United States a lame duck is a politician whose current term is his last, owing to defeat in a primary or general election, or other reasons.”—The Economist, 26 August, page 8>

<1973 “It is now the Congress . . which will be disposing what a lame duck President may propose.”—The Listener, 29 November, page 741/1>

<1991 “The lame-duck Republican town government in Oyster Bay today canceled a $150 million garbage incinerator that it had championed for years, . . .”—New York Times, 18 December>

<2000 “Mr. Clinton usually bristles at suggestions that he is a lame duck leader whose accomplishments are behind him.”—New York Times, 1 May> [[Note: All second term U.S. presidents are lame duck due to term limits]]

<2008 “In the education debate, the competing sides break down over the degree to which teachers and schools should be held accountable for how kids are learning, and the role test scores should play in making that determination. At the heart of the dispute: No Child Left Behind, the law that has grown as unpopular as George W. Bush, the lame-duck president who championed it.”—Associated Press Online, 8 December>
(quotes from Oxford English Dictionary, Historical Dictionary of American Slang, A Dictionary of Americanisms by Mathews, and archived sources)
_______________________

Ken G – December 9, 2008
Post actions:

Re: lame duck

Post by PhilHunt » Wed Dec 10, 2008 1:31 pm

Very interesting Ken. I love the evolution of these types of expressions.
It's cold comfort that 'lame duck' first described stockbrokers. I imagine there are a few lame ducks waddling around Wall Street as we speak.
Post actions:
Signature: That which we cannot speak of, must be passed over in silence...or else tweeted.

End of topic.
Post Reply