We use this phrase to describe someone or, occasionally, something that is unsuccessful or ineffective and in a political context someone who is serving out time following the election of their successor.
Although the phrase is pretty much deployed in a political context these days, it owes its origins to the nascent stock exchange of 18th century London. Those of us who scour the financial papers are familiar with the journalists’ characterisation of investors as bulls – optimists who see the market rising – and bears – pessimists who see the market falling. But there was a third category in the 1760s – lame ducks, a term developed to describe a stock market trader who failed to pay up when their bills became due.
The earliest known usage of the term in this context appeared in the Newcastle Courant of 5th September 1761 in a report of monies being paid into the Bank of England by subscription which noted, perhaps with some relief, “no lame ducks this time”. As a felicitous phrase its usage took off to join the emerging argot of the investors and traders in stocks and shares, to the bafflement of some. Horace Walpole wrote to Sir Horace Mann on 28th December 1761, “apropos, do you know what a Bull and a Bear and a Lame Duck are? Nay, nor I either: I am only certain that they are neither animals or fowl”.
In January of the following year the London Evening Post was reporting on the effect that exposure to lame ducks was having on fellow investors, “Thursday a Lame Duck disappeared from J___’s, to the no small mortification of his Brother Bulls and Bears, whom he has touched very considerably…Yesterday four more Lame Ducks took their flight”. Although lame duck would often be barred from future trading for defaulting on their obligations, their dishonesty had an impact on others.
On land ducks are ungainly creatures as they waddle along. Lame ducks were also characterised as waddling as the Leeds Intelligencer reported on 29th June 1762, “yesterday a lame duck or two made shift to waddle out of ‘Change Alley”. A century later, Thomas Love Peacock provided a perfect definition in his seventh and final novel, Gryll Grange, “a lame duck is a man who cannot pay his differences and is said to waddle off”.
It was only when the phrase crossed the Atlantic that it lost its financial context and acquired the more customary political hue. According to the Congressional Globe of January 12th 1863, Senator John P Hale said, “it is well known to anybody who knows anything of its history that this court (the court of claims) was made a sort of retreat for lame duck politicians that got wounded and had to retreat before the face of popular condemnation. That is just exactly what it was for, a safe retreat for lame ducks”.
In the States, unlike here in Blighty, there is a period of time, often stretching to months, between an election and the successful candidate actually taking office. This had two obvious effects – the incumbent, a lame duck, could be tempted to use the hiatus to feather their own nest, to continue the avian theme, or if there were a number in the same boat (or perhaps pond) it would paralyse the legislative process. So bad was the problem that the 20th Amendment, the so-called Lame Duck Amendment, was passed in 1933 reducing the period between an election and the victors assuming the reins of power.
So now we know!