I Have a Duck to Half-Sell You

Eurofighter_Typhoon_(hi_res)In French, the word simply means “duck.” Yet in English, “canard” has come to have two meanings: one derogatory, and the other technical.

If the 1905 book “French Idioms and Proverbs: A Companion to Deshumbert’s ‘Dictionary of Difficulties'” is to be believed, the word originated from some now long-forgotten French anecdote about ‘half-selling a duck’ to someone: “vendre à quequ’un un canard à moitié.”

The original crime would have to be recreated with some imagination: A marketplace. A shady, shifty-eyed con-man. He ostensibly offers a duck for your supper feast held in one hand, takes your ducats with his other hand, then suddenly turns and ducks off into the crowd.

To call someone or something a canard is to call them (or it) a cheat, a swindle, or a lie.

The other utility for this French word is in aeronautical engineering, going back to the dawn of powered flight. Most planes have a horizontal control surface on their tail: a tailplane. A few, though, have these control surfaces near their nose instead. Used to pitch the aircraft up or down, these forward control surfaces are known as canards.

wright_flyer_1903-02515The original 1903 Wright Flyer had canards. The coinage of the term occurred three years later, in 1906, when Brazilian aviation pioneer Alberto Santos-Dumont launched his 14-bis, also dubbed the “oiseau de proie” (“bird of prey”), from the fields of Neuilly-sur-Seine. However, what he saw as a “bird of prey” was seen by others as a “duck”-shaped aircraft, with a long neck and wings in the rear. The observers’ coinage stuck, and thus, a forward control plane has been known as a canard in aeronautical engineering ever since.

In a way, these forward control surfaces, these aeronautical canards, do “cheat.” You see, normally a tailplane has to force the body of an aircraft to pitch up or down. It is not very energy-efficient, though it is easier to control. The forward control surfaces make it very easy to pitch up-or-down. In fact, it can make it too easy.

The Eurofighter Typhoon (pictured at the top of the article) is a modern variant of such aircraft. Its canard design makes the aircraft far easier to pitch than a tailplane design. However it requires computerized controls, known as “fly-by-wire” systems, so that the aircraft doesn’t pitch head-over-tail and tumble out of control.

All of this goes to show that a word in one language may have a literal meaning (“a duck”), yet when it becomes a loan word in another, it can have a multitude of meanings. Whether for technical documentation or for idiomatic prose, you should consider experts on your next translation or localization job. Otherwise, someone might half-sell you a duck!

By | 2016-10-19T13:09:18+00:00 January 12th, 2016|Linguistic Tips|

About the Author:

Peter Corless is the Marketing Director for e2f. You can find him on Twitter at @PeterCorless.