Q From Patrice Kyger: In a report about Sheffield United football club appeared this: ‘After seeing them break their duck, Warnock is confident that they will emerge as genuine promotion contenders.’ Where does break one’s duck come from and what does it mean?
A It’s not as cruel as it sounds. It’s not the duck that’s being broken, but a duck’s egg. These days the expression can be used in almost any game that involves a score of some sort but originally — back in Victorian times — it related solely to cricket. It seems to have been English public-school slang of the 1850s to call a score of nought against a player’s name a duck’s egg — presumably a duck rather than a chicken because a duck’s egg is bigger and more prominent.
A player who had scored, who had moved off that accusing zero on the scoreboard, was said to have broken his duck’s egg. It began to appear in print in the early 1860s and soon people shortened it just to duck. The first known example of that form appeared in the Daily News in August 1868: “You see ... that his fear of a ‘duck’ — as by a pardonable contraction from duck-egg a nought is called in cricket-play — outweighs all other earthly considerations.” A batsman who was dismissed without scoring was said to be out for a duck.
It’s only in comparatively recent times that the expression has broadened to other games and to the performance of whole teams rather than individual players. In the report you quote, it means that the soccer team concerned has won a match, that their count of wins has moved off zero, an extension that is so figurative as to suggest it might be a misunderstanding of the original meaning. Though the expression is known from all cricket-playing English-speaking countries, it’s only in British usage, I think, that you can apply it generally to achieving some particular feat for the first time.
Americans briefly knew of duck’s eggs in the 1860s, but prefer now to speak of goose eggs in much the same sense, a slang term that is almost exactly contemporary with the cricket one. A related expression also originally from cricket is to lay an egg, so to score a zero; that might be the source of the theatrical version from the 1920s onwards that says an actor or a show is a failure or a flop, but it might instead be from airman’s slang of the First World War, meaning to drop a bomb.
It’s often said that the equivalent term love in tennis and some other games for a zero score likewise derives from the shape of an egg, in this case the French l’oeuf. To forestall lots of e-mails, I should say it’s a folk etymology. There is no known such link between the French word and the English one, and the term love is recorded in English in 1742, in Hoyle’s famous book on the game of whist, a century before anybody used the egg analogy in cricket, and even longer before the game of lawn tennis was invented. (Though real tennis is several centuries older, it didn’t use the term.) It is probable that love is from playing for love, that is, for pleasure rather than money, so that it doesn’t matter if one hasn’t (yet) scored.