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.

Further addendum (Sept. 2022). Dave Wilton at Wordorigins.org has done a Big List post on this term, and it turns out that although the “duck” form is the original, it’s not because of its impermeability and it has nothing to do with ducks: “The duck comes from the original cloth foundation of the tape.” Not a surprise that Safire, alevasholem, got it wrong. [As ktschwarz says in an October 6 comment: “the ‘duck’ form is *not* the original. See the Big List revision.]


  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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  6. See the Further addendum for Dave Wilton’s new post on the term.

  7. Since, as the wordorigins article emphasizes, the original word was from the Dutch doeck, meaning cloth, the obvious next step for the mischievous is to start calling the tape “Dutch tape”.

  8. Re the further addendum: the “duck” form is *not* the original. See the Big List revision.

    Safire’s column was promptly debunked on March 9, 2003 by Jan Freeman (don’t know if the original is on the web, but her column, along with Safire’s, was quoted on ADS-L). She pointed out that (1) the Venetian-blind ad is not evidence of *sticky* tape being called “duck tape” in the 1940s, (2) there is no evidence that military adhesive tapes were made from cotton duck, and (3) there is no primary-source evidence of adhesive tapes being called “duck tape” during the war. As both Safire and Dave Wilton note, there *is* primary-source evidence of “cotton duck tape” used by the Army in 1945, but it wasn’t adhesive; it was a light tape used e.g. to mark off minefields, not to seal boxes or stick things together.

    Dave Wilton’s revision now agrees with Freeman (and Michael Quinion’s World Wide Words): we don’t know what the heavy adhesive tape was called in World War II, and the name “duct tape” is the older, recorded since the 1950s. The spelling “duck tape” for that kind is recorded from the 1970s; taking advantage of it, Duck brand tape was trademarked in 1982.

    Freeman revisited the question in 2010 and got the Johnson & Johnson historian to acknowledge on the record that they had no hard evidence for the “cotton duck” origin story — though the company blog still carries the story with no such disclaimer. And once more in 2013: “It’s a good story, but none of us have been able to find a shred of evidence for it, despite the abundance of World War II-era documentation.”

    Even the OED nods! When they entered “duck tape” and “duct tape” as draft additions in August 2001, they fell for the “cotton duck” origin and treated the “duck” spelling as the original, with the other “perhaps” derived from it. They’ve also put in early citations for the collocation “duck tape” from 1899 (as a decorative element on a dress) and 1902 (wrapped around a bridge cable); these citations shouldn’t go under the lemma defined as ‘strong adhesive tape made of waterproofed cotton fabric’, they belong under attributive compounds, alongside “duck-weavers” and “duck trowsers”. I trust this will be sorted out when “duck” and “duct” get their full revisions.

    Thank you, Jan Freeman. *You* deserved the prestigious New York Times berth.

  9. Lars Mathiesen (he/him/his) says

    Unqualified, dug in Danish is a tablecloth. But the general fabric sense remains in sejldug = ‘sailcloth’ and glasfiberdug for gluing on your walls before painting them.

  10. A quick look in GBooks finds that duck tape in the early days was typically used as a wrapping around tubes and cables and such.

    Duct tape does appear in the 1950s, but it is made of asbestos, not cotton.

    (There’s also ovine bile duct tape-worms, but let’s not go there.)

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