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Where did the Term "get Your Ducks in a Row" Come from?

Michael Pollick
Updated May 23, 2024
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To get one's ducks in a row essentially means to ensure all of the small details or elements are accounted for and in their proper positions before embarking on a new project. A defense attorney, for example, may spend much of his or her time making sure all of the evidence and witnesses are presented in a precise, effective order. A salesman may get all of his or her "ducks in a row" by rehearsing his sales presentation beforehand. When a person is fully prepared for any eventuality and has every element in place, he or she can indeed be said to have his or her ducks in a row.

Etymologically speaking, your guess as to the origins of this saying is about as good as any other. There are at least three plausible theories surrounding the origin of "get your ducks in a row," plus some others which, at least, put up an interesting argument. Some sources suggest the phrase was not even used in print until the late 1970s, although a magazine article from 1932 did suggest "getting our economic ducks in a row."

The most popular theory suggests that "ducks in a row" came from the world of sports, specifically bowling. Early bowling pins were often shorter and thicker than modern pins, which led to the nickname ducks. Before the advent of automatic resetting machines, these "duck pins" would be manually put back into place between bowling rounds. Therefore, having one's ducks in a row would be a metaphor for having all of the bowling pins organized and properly placed before sending the next ball down the lane. Many bowling alleys still offer "duck pin" lanes with smaller bowling balls and shorter pins.

Another theory comes from the world of nature. Mother ducks often corral their young offspring into manageable straight lines before traveling over land or water. Any stragglers or escapees would be noticed as long as the integrity of this line is maintained. The idea of getting all of one's ideas or ingredients or team members in one organized line would be similar to a mother duck getting all of her literal ducks in a row. One concern with this theory is the use of the word ducks, since baby ducks are more correctly identified as ducklings or even chicks. The common expression suggests adult ducks, not necessarily younger ducklings.

There are also sources which argue the "ducks in a row" element refers to a carnival game or two. One popular carnival game involves the player using a small caliber rifle or air gun to knock down moving targets. Quite often these targets are in the shape of ducks, and a conveyor belt system makes sure the duck targets are aligned in a consistent row. It is possible that the expression came from the benefit of having all of the targets (ducks) arrive in a predictable and organized order.

A different carnival game uses plastic ducks which float in a water-filled track as players attempt to select the ones with high-value prize codes hidden underneath. These plastic ducks are generally presented in a moving row for easier selection by the players.

It is also possible that the expression came from the natural flight formation of ducks as they move through the sky. The most efficient arrangement is a V-formation behind the leader, which allows each duck to take advantage of reduced wind resistance. Having all of one's metaphorical ducks in a row would be just as efficient and logical as flying in such an organized formation.

Language & Humanities is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Michael Pollick
By Michael Pollick
As a frequent contributor to Language & Humanities, Michael Pollick uses his passion for research and writing to cover a wide range of topics. His curiosity drives him to study subjects in-depth, resulting in informative and engaging articles. Prior to becoming a professional writer, Michael honed his skills as an English tutor, poet, voice-over artist, and DJ.
Discussion Comments
By anon992186 — On Aug 20, 2015

Regarding anon975474

Post 21

Any Naval architecture student who studied before the use of Computer Aided Drafting (or computers for that matter) can confirm this post.

Having attended the Univ of Michgan from 1973-1977, (not so long ago) prior to PC's and even calculators, I well remember "getting my ducks in a row" when working on my freshman project to "fair the lines" in my design of a sailing sloop!

There may be other legitimate origins as well, but this one stands true.

By anon975474 — On Oct 27, 2014

I am 65. As a young man in my early 20's, I worked in the shipbuilding industry. To develop the lines of the hull for building the frames, a "spline" was used, and the small odd shaped weights, that had a fine point protruding in front which held the spline in place, were called ducks. The "ducks" had to be lined up correctly to make a smooth curve replicating the line of the ships hull.

I was told by the old Norweigan Naval architect I worked for that this was the origin of the term “ducks in a row.” He, at that time, was in his 70's, and earned his naval architecture degree after beginning in a Norweigan shipyard as a young boy, then working in each craft until he was moved into the engineering department, and finally to the actual design of ships themselves. Either way, it stands for having the details in order.

By anon339330 — On Jun 22, 2013

I like the spline theory. Also, 60 years ago my grandmother from Kentucky often talked of getting her ducks in a row. About 1982, my mother observed Balinese farmers calling their ducks to a post at the edge of a field where the ducks had been eating the insects. After getting his ducks in a row, the farmer would lead them in a row around the edge of the field back to their pen for the night. I'm still trying to get my ducks in a row!

By anon328837 — On Apr 05, 2013

A duck (a.k.a. "cairn") is a pile of three or more stones used to mark a route across a barren place. You must be able to line up the duck you have passed with the duck you are at and the next duck ahead before you can safely move forward (i.e., not get lost).

By anon157187 — On Mar 01, 2011

I have been told that "getting your ducks in a row" was a phrase used by waterfowl market hunters in the Chesapeake Bay area.

The market hunter would put out grain in a long row to bait an area that he was hunting and then position himself in a blind or punt boat at one end of the row of grain. Waterfowl would come into the bait and line up in front of the hunter to eat the grain. The hunter could kill many ducks with one shot. Of course, he wanted to wait to fire until he "had his ducks in a row".

By anon152089 — On Feb 12, 2011

I was at our city park yesterday and saw about 50 black ducks all in a row, standing by the lake about equal distance apart and looking towards the water.

When I saw that, I wondered if that was where the phrase came from. I wish I could attach the picture here for everyone to see. I had never seen such a sight ever before and found it very interesting.

Thanks for letting me share my experience with you.

By anon143992 — On Jan 18, 2011

Ducks in a row comes from ship building. A duck is a device that holds the keel in place while building a ship. The first step in building a ship is to get the ducks in straight row thus ensuring a straight keel. Today, they use lasers to ensure the ducks are in a straight row. The phrase goes back to wooden sailing ships.

By anon114234 — On Sep 27, 2010

It was told to me by my father that to get your ducks in a row came from commercial duck hunting in the Eastern Seaboard of North America where they hunted Black Ducks. They used to have 8 gauge shotguns that were mounted on the fronts of boats or floats.

The hunters remained hidden until they had the ducks lined up or grouped in the row that the shotgun pellets would hit and they would fire both barrels of the gun remotely by using a string. That's what an old timer told this old timer.

By anon110096 — On Sep 10, 2010

the phrase "get the ducks in a row" comes from naval architecture, not car design, though arrowhead77 had the right idea.

when drawing, but more especially when lofting (transferring a drawn design into full-scale-and-sized lofting templates, known as station and chine patterns), a designer sighted down a spline held down by the lead ducks as described by arrowhead77, and when one had achieved a fair curve, or the drawn design curve, without bulges or hollows, then it was said the designer had "all his ducks in a row".

By anon90307 — On Jun 15, 2010

What about the theory that it originates from the trade currency throughout Europe - Ducat, shortened to Ducs or Ducks (Urban Slang - Duckets). Make sure one has enough money, including necessary preparations to obtain it, to move forward with a purchase.

DSciphire. Ant

By anon80204 — On Apr 26, 2010

I have observed adult domesticated ducks (the birds) travel in single file--of approximately 30 or 40 feet over a distance over several thousand feet. As soon as I saw this phenomenon, I knew what getting your ducks in a row meant.

By anon80155 — On Apr 26, 2010

This is a very well written, informative article. Thanks wisegeek!

By anon75113 — On Apr 05, 2010

I always picture a mother duck crossing the street with her baby ducks. As a mother myself, I relate to this image.

By anon64958 — On Feb 10, 2010

I always assumed it had something to do with hunting. Waiting to get your ducks in a row would get more with a single shot, saving expenditure on ammunition.

By anon62762 — On Jan 28, 2010

Yep, derivation is from pin-setters. My father, ashes many years ago, was a pin-setter when he was a young man, in the 20's. He used 'Duck in a Row' for as long as I can remember.

By anon57242 — On Dec 21, 2009

I concur with arrowhead77 definition of getting your ducks in a row. I too, come from an engineering/drafting background and was taught that the origin of getting your ducks in a row was from drawing loft lines for ships and other purposes including aircraft and automotive. An example of drafting ducks, also known as lofting ducks can be found online.

By anon34757 — On Jun 28, 2009

I remember this coming from the carnivals, where the plastic ducks were lined up in order of a row across the back. Once they were lined up you can began shooting at them to see how many you could hit. This goes back about seventy years, which is almost my age. -Sylvia

By anon34438 — On Jun 22, 2009

I'm no ornithologist, but I do live in the migration flight path known as Minnesota, and I have to say that I have yet to see any more than a pair of ducks flying together at any one time. I have only seen geese flying in the V formation that was discussed.

So my money's on the bowling origin, especially since bowling would have been a favorite pastime of midwestern engineering types during the sixties.

By bluefire — On Jun 21, 2009

I have to subscribe to the theory that Mother Nature originally fostered the term. Even as arrowhead77 explains, those engineers wouldn't have used the word "ducks" if it weren't for the Real ducks, and the alignment of the splines factor seems also to "line up" with the lines of ducklings behind a mother duck. It just seems the most logical explanation for the origin of the term. Without mother ducks and their ducklings in a row behind them, it seems there would be no such term as getting all your ducks in a row. At the very least, the origin of the term has to have been inspired by Mother Nature.

By arrowhead77 — On Jun 21, 2009

When I was a young automotive designer in Detroit in the early 60’s, I was told what ducks in a row meant by an engineer.

In those days, engineers still used drawings to layout car designs. They worked on large horizontal surfaces which were coated with a white material on which they would scribe accurate lines to determinate the cars styling. In order to draw long sweeping lines, they used plastic flexible splines which were bent to follow the lines and they used weights to hold the splines in place before they scribed the lines. These weights were heavy, lead weights with a metal hook that held the splines in place so they could be traced. Their shape resembled ducks. Therefore, putting your ducks in a row meant to hold the spline so as to make a nice clean curve before scribing.

Michael Pollick
Michael Pollick
As a frequent contributor to Language & Humanities, Michael Pollick uses his passion for research and writing to cover a...
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