Congress gets ready for lame duck, and it’s not even Thanksgiving

November 12, 2010

Congress returns next week for that peculiar order of business known as a lame-duck session. It’s a post-election gathering where lawmakers who lost re-election get to take any final votes, while newcomers who won in the Nov. 2 midterms have to sit it out.

The hot item to watch will be whether extending the Bush-era tax cuts will fly, but don’t expect any Peking duck, as legislation on China’s currency is unlikely to be on the menu. (Hey, it’s Friday).

All the duck talk got us to revisit the origin of the phrase “lame duck.”

It’s British! And it wasn’t even about politics.

NORTHERN IRELAND/The phrase originated in the London Stock Market, referring to investors who couldn’t pay their debts. The following are some citations at The Phrase Finder.

— In Horace Walpole’s Letters to Sir Horace Mann, 1761, there is: “Do you know what a Bull, and a Bear, and a Lame Duck are?”

— In 1771, David Garrick, in Prologue to Foote’s Maid of Bath writes: “Change-Alley bankrupts waddle out lame ducks!”

— In 1772, the Edinburgh Advertiser had: “Yesterday being the settling day for India stock, the bulls had a balance to pay to the bears to the amount of 23 per cent. Only one lame duck waddled out of the alley, and that for no greater a sum than 20,000.”

And one example cited often for the origin of the phrase is on page 157 of Thomas Love Peacock’s “Gryll Grange” from 1861 where he notes: “In Stock Exchange slang, Bulls are specultors for a rise, Bears for a fall. A lame duck is a man who cannot pay his differences, and is said to waddle off.”

In the United States, the phrase turned into an expression used for a politician who is on the way out, but still holds office until the newly elected one takes over.

A 2006 article in The New York Times points out that in 1863, the Congressional Globe described the U.S. Court of Claims as “a receptacle of lame ducks or broken down politicians.”

If you want to know even more about lame duck sessions, the Congressional Research Service has lots of information in its “Lame Duck Sessions of Congress, 1935-2008.”

Photo credit: Reuters/Cathal McNaughton (child’s toy duck after ice storm in Northern Ireland)








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