WHY A DUCK?

That’s the title of William Safire’s language column in today’s Times Magazine, and it’s the first one in a long time that not only eludes my carping but gladdens my heart. I can finally come clean and confess that not until I was an adult did I realize that the phrase was “duct tape” and not “duck tape.” I was very embarrassed when I realized my mistake, but it turns out that the reason I had that impression was that it was “duck tape” when I was a child:

The original name of the cloth-backed, waterproof adhesive product was duck tape, developed for the United States Army by the Permacel division of Johnson & Johnson to keep moisture out of ammunition cases. The earliest civilian use I can find is in an advertisement by Gimbels department store in June 1942 (antedating the O.E.D. entry by three decades—nobody but nobody beats this column), which substitutes our product for the ”ladder tape” that usually holds together Venetian blinds. For $2.99, Gimbels—now defunct—would provide blinds ”in cream with cream tape or in white with duck tape.”…


The first citation I can find for the alternative spelling is in 1970, when the Larry Plotnik Company of Chelsea, Mass., went bust and had to unload 14,000 rolls of what it advertised as duct tape. Three years later, The Times reported that to combat the infiltration of cold air, a contractor placed ”duct tape—a fiber tape used to seal the joints in heating ducts—over the openings.”
As the t spelling stuck, the Henkel Consumer Adhesives Company registered the name ”Duck brand duct tape,” now the No. 1 brand in the United States. Even prom outfits are made from it.
The duckiness in the nomenclature persists because the essence of the product is its impermeability. A duck is a waterfowl, its feathers designed by nature to repel water. The simile using this quality was first cited by the novelist Charles Kingsley in 1871 to deride fallacious reasoning: ”All else is a ‘paralogism’ and runs off them like water off a duck’s back.” The expression means ”without apparent effect.” And that, Chico, is why a duck.

So the logical-looking “duct tape” is actually a folk etymology, and my youthful wordhoard is vindicated. Thank you, Mr. Safire.
Addendum. I have just discovered this entry at The Vocabula Review:

duck tape Solecistic for duct tape. • In view of the possibility of a chemical, biological or nuclear dirty bomb attack, they were also told to have duck tape and plastic sheeting ready to seal doors and windows. USE duct tape. [Edinburgh Evening News] • [A couple more examples of this "misuse" are quoted—LH]
The term is duct tape, not duck tape though there is, from a company apparently trying to capitalize on people’s ignorance, Duck (brand) tape. Duct tape has fewer uses than we have perhaps been led to believe; duck tape, fewer still. More …

Now, that “More…” is a link, and when you click on it you discover that you have to log in as a paid subscriber to read the rest of the article. In other words, they charge money for this supercilious misinformation. Maybe they should get a subscription to the Times and read Safire.

Comments

  1. A few years ago there was a report from a couple of materials engineers (?) at Berkeley (?) that concluded, “Duct tape is useful for a lot of things, but it’s no damn good for sealing ducts.”

  2. Dan Hartung says:

    The industry standard is silver duct tape, usually reflective, with a heat rating of 200 degrees. Regular duct tape, especially right near the furnace, breaks down right quick (I can attest).

  3. It isn’t the heat that is the problem with using duct tape on ducts. It is the moisture. A lot of times moisture will condense on a duct from changes in heat, and duct tape, unlike ducks, can’t handle water very well.

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