Q From Jonas Wetherell: Is that universal sticky tape stuff that everyone has in their garage toolkit called duct tape or duck tape? I've seen and heard it both ways.
A It’s possible to make a case that either is right. The story behind the stuff is confusing enough to require some sorting out. Bear with me while I trace the evidence and the contrary opinions.
Though duck tape is known earlier — the Oxford English Dictionary has an example of that term from 1902 — it’s a different material. That duck tape isn’t the triple-layer, silver-coloured, sticky-backed stuff but plain cotton tape. The woven fabric has been called duck for four centuries, though it was originally made from linen, not cotton (its name is from from Dutch doek, linen or linen cloth). It was a lighter and finer material than canvas, often used for seamen’s trousers and sometimes for sails on small craft. Duck tape was widely used at one time for the vertical binding tapes of venetian blinds.
Accounts that have appeared on various web pages and in a column by William Safire in the New York Times in March 2003 all tell the same story about the origin of duct tape (so much so that they probably derive from a common source). The story is that the original material was developed by the Permacel division of Johnson & Johnson in 1942 as a waterproof sealing tape for ammunition boxes in the US Army. The story says that because the fabric backing was made from cotton duck and because it repelled moisture “like water off a duck’s back”, it became known to soldiers as duck tape.
Recent research by Gary Kiecker, a former marketing director for Scotch tapes at 3M Company, shows that the story of its origin is untrue. The tapes used by the US Army during the war for sealing ammunition cases and other uses were off-the-shelf brands, including Johnson & Johnson’s Jonflex and Utilitape. The latter was a moisture-proof cloth tape introduced in 1933.
Despite being widely held, the story about these wartime materials being called duck tape is also entirely false: no mention of them is known in any document of the wartime period that anyone investigating the matter has looked at. The story might have grown up because there are a few examples of duck tape appearing in contemporary documents that specify construction methods. This was actually the older cotton tape, usually painted over to preserve it.
After the war, J&J sold their tape for sealing joints in air-conditioning ducts. To match the ducting it was coloured silver. We may guess that it became known informally among heating engineers as duct tape, though the term didn't appear in print at the time. In the late 1950s, a new product was introduced with a third layer of waterproof polyethylene film. This is the product that in various qualities we know today as duct tape. The first unequivocal reference I can find to a tape that sounds like the modern material is this announcement in a trade journal:
A new duct tape for sealing ductwork and insulation on heating and air conditioning installations is available in this firm's aluminum cloth series (high count, high strength cloth) and in its aluminum reinforced fiber series.
Heating and Air Conditioning Contractor, Volume 49, 1957.
The term duct tape has never been trademarked, though several compound terms that include it have — it seems that it had become generic before anybody thought of registering it.
Your other term, duck tape, has a different history. Apart from a one-off instance in the Oxford English Dictionary of duck tape from 1971 (which looks like a case of what’s called elision — the collision of the two ts in the middle of duct tape causes the first one to be lost.), I can’t find duck tape in the adhesive sense until the 1980s. It was a trademark of Henkel Consumer Adhesives (now owned by ShurTech Brands), dating from 1982, who sold it under that name in several countries. John Kahl, the CEO of Henkel, was reported by Jan Freeman in the Boston Globe in March 2003 as saying that his father chose the name after noticing that duct tape sounded like duck tape when his customers asked for it.
To summarise. As names for the self-adhesive tape, duct tape came first, given informally to a material used by heating engineers after the Second World War and later transferred to a more sophisticated version, and the duck tape version is elision in rapid speech, capitalised on by a manufacturer long after the duct tape name became commonplace.