Just Ducky

On funny winged creatures, nuclear and natural, lame and waddling.

Israeli leaders had been stepping up the rhetoric about the need to stop Iran from going nuclear for some time already, and one of the recent apexes of that passive-aggressive discourse was reached at the recent AIPAC conference. Last week I addressed Prime Minister Netanyahu’s strategy of comparing current events, like Iranian nuclear efforts with the Holocaust. Now it’s high time to say a few words about Netanyahu’s tactic of deploying the weapon of mass distraction called “the duck test.”

“Ladies and gentlemen,” he said in his AIPAC speech, “if it looks like a duck, if it walks like a duck, if it quacks like a duck, then what is it? What is it? That’s right, it’s a duck. But this duck is a nuclear duck.”

Dudu Geva's duck sitting on top of the Tel Aviv municipality.
Nir Kafri

The same “duck test” was applied to Iran by Defense Minister Ehud Barak, when he was interviewed by talk-show host Charlie Rose in November: “Iran, you know, if it looks like a duck, it walks like a duck, and it quacks like a duck, it’s a duck.” Lest he be misunderstood, Barak preceded those words by noting that “The time really has come to call a spade a spade.”

A spade by any other name would dig as deep, but a duck makes waters ripple. Why a duck? One answer that comes to mind − but most probably not the right one − is that in 2002, psychologist Richard Wiseman and colleagues at the University of Hertfordshire finished a year-long experiment, and concluded that of all animals, ducks attract the most humor and silliness (pace Donald, Daffy and Dudu Geva). But as we all know, nuclear weapons are not a laughing matter.

To get to the bottom of this “pensieve,” perhaps one should not ask “Why a duck?” but rather “What is a duck?” According to Encyclopaedia Britannica online (which is where it will be found, from now on), the answer to that is: “any various species of small, short-necked, large-billed relatively small waterfowl. In true ducks − i.e., those classified as the subfamily Anatidae − the legs are placed rearward, as in swans, rather than forward, as in geese.” Another tidbit of information concerning ducks: “Anatidae are remarkable for being one of the few families of birds that possess a penis” (Wikipedia).  That applies to the male duck, i.e. drake. What does it mean in nuclear terms is anybody’s guess.

Most phrase-finders attribute authorship of the “duck test” to John Whitcomb Riley ‏(1849-1916‏), who is often called “the poet of common people.” I used my best Googling skills and searched in the 10 online volumes of Riley’s collected poetry and prose, but did not find traces of anything even vaguely resembling it. I did see that it was used in the United States during the Cold War in the context of “outing” communists.

One thing we can be certain of is that a duck is not a goose, as a goose most probably looks, walks and squawks like a goose. Which might be important to the Iranians in the event of an American or Israeli attack: In 390 B.C.E., a flock of geese who were taking refuge with their Roman masters on Capitoline Hill alerted them − by squawking − that the Gauls were already at the gates. Nor is a duck a swan, as the Ugly Duckling discovered, to his immense relief, at the end of the famous story penned by Hans Christian Andersen in 1843.

With the Duckling’s experience in mind, maybe we should rephrase the “duck test,” according to Douglas Adams, as “if it looks like a duck, and quacks like a duck, we have at least to consider the possibility that we have a small aquatic bird of the family Anatidae on our hands” (in “Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency”).

Besides connoting a bird, “duck” is also a verb; just as a duck thrusts its head underwater in a swift, sudden move (presumably the origin of its name comes from Old English ducan, “to dive”), the verb means “to lower head or body suddenly,” or figuratively, “to evade.” In 1926, Jack Dempsey lost his heavyweight boxing championship title on points to Gene Tunney, who was supposedly the underdog. Dempsey explained his defeat to his wife by saying “Honey, I forgot to duck” − a phrase Ronald Reagan reprised after he was shot in a failed assassination attempt in 1981.

The Iranian nuclear project cannot “duck” in case of an attack, not only because it is inanimate and also diffuse, but also because some or most of it is already underground. Consequently, our leaders do their utmost not to let the world duck the issue of the Iranian nukes.

Meanwhile, Iran is far from being a “sitting duck” (i.e., a duck that forgets to duck and is thus vulnerable to an attack), and any effort to solve the problem there by military means is not going to be “a duck soup” (“an easy task, or someone easy to overcome”; OED). “Duck Soup” is also the name of a 1933 Marx Brothers movie, which has nothing to do with ducks. The question raised here, incidentally, comes from an earlier Marx Brothers movie, “The

Cocoanuts” ‏(1929‏). The fast-talking Groucho is showing Chico a map, and explains: “Now, here is a little peninsula, and, eh, here is a viaduct leading over to the mainland.” And Chico asks, in his inimitable Italian-accented English, “Why a duck?”

A quack, besides being the sound that gives a female duck’s identity away, is also a “medical charlatan” (from Middle Dutch quacken, “to brag, to boast,” and Dutch kwaksalver, “hawker of salve”). The way ducks walk − because of their legs being placed rearward − is actually a waddle, which makes them look rather lame when out of water.

Then of course there is the term “lame duck,” which describes politicians who are at the end of their term of office, or have already been voted out and are waiting for their successors to assume their duties. Netanyahu is doing his best to ensure that President Obama will be a lame duck, between November 6 2012, and January 20, 2013. And since Ehud Barak’s Atzmaut party may not make it into the Knesset in the next elections, according to the polls, he seems to be a pretty lame duck already, unless he’s co-opted to some other political flock.

However, the origin of this idiom has nothing to do with politics. It comes from the London Stock Market in the 18th century, and refers to investors who are unable to pay their debts, like Messers. Tshuva, Leviev and Ben-Dov in Israel, for instance. The reference is in a letter written by Sir Horace Walpole to Sir Horace Mann in 1761, during the Anglo-Spanish War: “How Scipio would have stared if he had been told that he must not demolish Carthage, as it would ruin several aldermen who had money in the Punic actions! Apropos, do you know what a Bull, and a Bear, and a Lame Duck are? Nay, nor I either; I only am certain that they are neither animals nor fowl, but are extremely interested in the new subscription. I don’t believe I apply it right; but I feel as if I should be a Lame Duck if the Spaniards take the vessel that has my altar on board.”

Wikipedia explains that “we are still familiar with the terms ‘bull market’ and ‘bear market,’ referring to rising and falling markets respectively, but ‘lame duck’ in the specifically stock-trading context is now little used.”

In Walpole’s view, “lame duck” applies specifically to a person who exerts (undue) influence on politicians who are supposed to wage war, or refrain from waging one, based on their own − or common − pecuniary interests: for example, selling in advance a property or stocks due to be devalued in case of a war, or not embarking on a military operation because it will send oil prices sky-high.

Last, but not least: There is an Iranian dish called Khoresht-e fesenjan, or simply fesenjan, which is a thick, tart stew made from pomegranate juice, ground walnuts and also duck. “Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we shall die” (Isaiah 22:13).