What is a Lame Duck?

Between an election and the formation of a new government, we always go through a period of governance that includes people who are about to lose their jobs. We’ve adopted the expression “lame duck” for this period, as in a lame duck session of Congress. But where did this expression originate? And I can understand the lame part, but why a duck? (In the current situation, “Lame elephant” would be more descriptive.)

According to “Here’s Where The Term ‘Lame Duck’ Comes From” by Caroline Bologna (https://www.huffpost.com/entry/lame-duck-word-origin_l_5fb2f1fec5b6aad41f723613?), the term goes back centuries to the London Stock Exchange.

“Lame duck” was originally adopted to describe someone who defaulted on debt. The thinking was this trader would be vulnerable to predators, like an injured duck unable to keep up with the flock. The earliest documented use is in a December 1761 letter written by British historian and politician Horace Walpole to Sir Horace Mann: “Do you know what a Bull, and a Bear, and a Lame Duck are?” The phrase was picked up from the Exchange Alley, or “Change Alley,” the coffeehouses that ultimately became the London Stock Exchange.

Somehow, the expression caught on. It showed up  in the prologue  to the 1771 play “The Maid of Bath.” It was also more appropriately used to refer to “old, slow ships”  and eventually reached the U.S.

Over here, a political connotation appeared in 1844 when a writer for the Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, newspaper The Compiler editorialized about presidential candidates: “Henry Clay is acknowledged to be first rate at the game of brag, but [James K.] Polk will make a lame duck of him.” President Abraham Lincoln reportedly once said, ”[A] senator or representative out of business is a sort of lame duck. He has to be provided for,” per the Online Etymology Dictionary. And according to a January 1863 issue of The Congressional Globe (a record of the official proceedings of the U.S. Congress in the mid-1800s), Sen. Lazarus W. Powell of Kentucky said, “In no event, either as originally organized or as now organized, could [the Court of Claims] be justly obnoxious to the charge of being a receptacle of ‘lame ducks’ or broken down politicians.”

A different example of its use in this country was in 1869 when writer George W. Bungay referred to supporters of the temperance movement whose commitment weakened — “In Wall Street, New York, we have a class of men known as ‘lame ducks’: they have met with financial disasters, and can not keep pace with their more successful competitors. We have lame ducks in our temperance associations, and I will briefly classify some of the men and women who do not and who will not keep up with our progressive organization. The lame ducks were once out-and-out friends of ‘the cause.’ … When they have attempted to swim in whisky, they have become ‘dead ducks.’”

It wasn’t until the early 20th century that “lame duck” began to refer to politicians who had lost an election but were still in office. The New York Evening Post in 1910 mentioned “Lame Duck Alley … a screened-off corridor in the White House offices, where statesmen who went down in the recent electoral combat may meet.” In 1922, The New York Times mentioned a plan “to have the convening of Congress moved up to avoid lame-duck Congresses.”

As for the executive branch, Republican Calvin Coolidge was the subject of a 1926 editorial from the Grand Rapids Press called “Making A Lame Duck of Coolidge” about the possibility of a Democratic Senate majority during his final two years in office.

The plan to move Congress up to avoid lame-duckness bore fruit with the ratification of the 20th Amendment in 1933. This Constitutional amendment established new dates for the inauguration of the president and the start of the new Congress, a recognition of the awkwardness of being governed by people about to leave office. In fact, it became known as the “Lame Duck Amendment.” 

Is there a better term? Some think so. In 2015, Atlantic writer Megan Garber wrote “It is jargon-y. It is partisan. It is poorly descriptive. It is offensive to both humans and, we can reasonably assume, the entire waterfowl community.” One Twitter poster even suggested “president-eject”  as a preferable alternative.

But for better or worse, it appears “lame duck” will be firmly rooted in our political jargon for the foreseeable future.

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