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Some people love getting joke emails but I try to avoid it; it’s hard enough to stay focused.
I did get one recently full of odd newspaper clippings and made the mistake of starting to read them.
I’ll just give you the one that influenced me to choose the word duck for podictionary.
“Dog attack: Lower Duck Pond, Lithia, Ashland. Police responded to a report of two dogs running loose and attacking ducks at about 11:20 a.m. Sunday. The officer cited a resident for the loose dogs. The duck refused medical treatment and left the area, according to police records.”
When I look up ducks in The Oxford English Dictionary one of the first things it says is “a swimming bird of the genus Anas.” So let’s start with that.
Like most scientific names for animals anas is Latin and you can tell right away that it doesn’t sound like duck.
It turns out that in Old English there was another word for “duck” that does sound more like the scientific Latin, that Old English word was ende.
Sometimes Old English words with Latin relatives arrived because of the influence of the church. Sometimes an older influence might have been that words rubbed off on the Germanic tribes as they fought and traded with the Romans before the Anglo-Saxons arrived in Britain.
In the case of this outdated word for “duck” the roots appear to be much deeper because there is supposed to have been an Indo-European word for “duck” angti that percolated up not only into English and Latin, but Greek and Russian as well as other Germanic languages.
But for some reason English speakers more than 1000 years ago began to abandon this word and started using duck instead.
Why did they choose the word duck for this kind of bird?
Because ducks stick their heads under water to feed; they duck their heads.
The strange thing is that the verb to duck must have been a somewhat rare usage because it doesn’t show up in the written record until about 1340; almost 400 years after the first written record of the bird having this name.
Five days a week Charles Hodgson produces Podictionary – the podcast for word lovers, Thursday episodes here at OUPblog. He’s also the author of several books including his latest History of Wine Words – An Intoxicating Dictionary of Etymology from the Vineyard, Glass, and Bottle.