Q From James Rose: ‘Lord love a duck’: is it a long winded rhyme for an expletive that has to remain unuttered in this polite company, or is there a story behind it? Beyond the Roddy McDowall movie from 1966, Google is failing me. Can you help to shed some light?
A Not a lot, I’m afraid. It’s a mild expression of surprise, once well known in Britain and dating from the early twentieth century. It has been used a lot in inoffensive situations, so I doubt it is a euphemism for the F-word.
The Oxford English Dictionary has just one example, from — of all sources — James Joyce’s Ulysses: “Paddy Leonard eyed his alemates. Lord love a duck, he said. Look at what I’m standing drinks to!” But T S Eliot also used it, in The Rock of 1934: “Lor-love-a-duck, it’s the missus!”. It also turns up a number of times in the works of P G Wodehouse, the earliest being The Coming of Bill, two years before Ulysses was published: “‘Well, Lord love a duck!’ replied the butler, who in his moments of relaxation was addicted to homely expletives of the lower London type.”
Form an adoring queue, you aristocrats
I would unhesitatingly argue that it was originally British, though it has since emigrated to other Commonwealth countries. And that origin is supported by the earliest example I’ve found, in a long-forgotten tale of 1907, The Wheel O’ Fortune, by Louis Tracy, a British journalist and prolific author: “‘Lord love a duck!’ he guffawed. ‘If only I’d ha’ knowed, I could have told my missus. It would have cheered her up for a week.’”
But why should aristocrats amorously dally with anatine animals? And why should their proclivities be turned into an exclamation? Nigel Rees suggests it was a fake Cockney version of “Lord love us!” never uttered in real life. Or it might be a line from some music-hall sketch long gone from memory. Perhaps the whole point about it is that it doesn’t make sense?
Page created 27 May 2006
Support World Wide Words and keep this site alive.
Donate by selecting your currency and clicking the button.
Buy from Amazon and get me a small commission at no cost to you. Select a site and click Go!