Failing the duck test

The sub-plot

The story has it that, in 1950, the US Ambassador to Guatemala reckoned the (dodgily) democratically-elected government of President Jacobo Árbenz Guzmán was a bunch of Commies.

This had absolutely nothing to do with the Árbenz régime proposing to sequester the sprawling plantations of the United Fruit Company. Oh, no! Perish the thought. Having Allen Dulles, Director of the CIA on the UFC board? UFC uniquely having a CIA cipher? Having the law-firm of John Foster Dulles as UFC’s lawyers? All coincidence, absolutely pure coincidence!

Anyway Ambassador Patterson expressed himself in this metaphor:

Suppose you see a bird walking around in a farm yard. This bird has no label that says ‘duck’. But the bird certainly looks like a duck. Also, he goes to the pond and you notice that he swims like a duck. Then he opens his beak and quacks like a duck. Well, by this time you have probably reached the conclusion that the bird is a duck, whether he’s wearing a label or not.

Hence, the “duck test”.

Yes, there do seem to be other, even earlier explications of the expression.

Back to the main narrative

Malcolm has a perfectly good iron garden gate. The posts rotted away long ago, and were chucked out, together with the fittings.

He now wishes, and is in a position to re-hang that gate.

Aha! You have spotted the flaw in this plan!

So, this morning he went in search of replacement fittings. Two things to hang the gate from, solid enough to carry the weight of a substantial metal gate, and one for its latch to catch in.

At the second attempt he found a wonderful lady, apparently named Gloria, who understood precisely what Malcolm required, and even showed him a catalogue.

Gloria patiently explained that Malcolm needs two pintles and a gudgeon.


Until that moment, had someone used the word, Malcolm would have heard “pintail”. As a lad from the Norfolk coast Malcolm has a mental image of one of those:

Wrong, Malcolm. Very, very wrong — well, pretty wrong, anyhow.

Let us refer, as so often, to the Oxford English Dictionary:

 1. The penis of a man or a male animal. In later use regional and colloq.

Huh? Surely not! Particularly so when half-way through the citations we meet:

1470    J. Paston in Paston Lett. & Papers (2004) I. 415   It is reportyd that hys pyntell is asse longe as hys legge.

And certainly not two of them!

Hold on! This looks more to the point:

2. A pin or bolt, esp. one on which another part in a mechanism turns; spec.
a. Naut. A pin forming part of the hinge of a rudder, usually fixed on the rudder and fitting into a ring on the sternpost

Better still, the very first citation is:

1486    in M. Oppenheim Naval Accts. & Inventories Henry VII (1896) 15   A pyntell & a gogeon for the Rother.

To think young, barely-adolescent Malcolm flushed with embarrassment when he found the two parts of a nut-and-bolt were referred to as “male” and “female”. The metaphorical link between those two OED definitions is abundantly clear.

Even so, that pintail’s tail-feather does point up in a somewhat suggestive fashion. And it’s missing in the female. Hmmm …


In the same way, Malcolm thought he would know a gudgeon were he to meet one:

Back to the OED, perhaps?

 1 a. A small European fresh-water fish (Gobio fluviatilis), much used for bait.

What’s worrying Malcolm there is he remembers his Othello [V.1.11] at this point:

I’ve rubbed this young quat almost to the sense.

“Quat” is glossed by some editors as a typo for “quab, a gudgeon”, largely on the evidence of John Florio using it in 1598, and Malcolm sees the OED (again) suggests quab/quob is cognate with a Dutch word for “toad, frog” (which are distinctly not the same) that it “perhaps” derives “ultimately” from  an Indo-European base of expressive origin (with the underlying sense ‘something slimy, flabby, or quivering’) .

Sorry, chaps, but Malcolm can see a further possible and queynte alternative there, which would fit better with Iago’s sense.

Back on stage!

Helped by that 1486 Henry VII naval reference, let’s scroll down the dictionary page. Aha!

gudgeon, n.2
1. A pivot, usually of metal, fixed on or let into the end of a beam, spindle, axle, etc., and on which a wheel turns, a bell swings, or the like; in recent use more widely applied to various kinds of journals and similar parts of machinery.

Err, a sudden moment of doubt here:  did Gloria (remember her?) get that one aright? It looks, in that definition as if pintles and gudgeons are remarkably similar.

We shall wait for delivery and see …

If she’s wrong, the word won’t be Duck.


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Filed under History, Norfolk, Quotations, reading, Shakespeare

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