Sitting Ducks – Meaning and Origin

Meaning:

Something that is lacking protection and thus it’s in a vulnerable position.

​Example: A few months ago, we planted various flowers in our front yard and they have bloomed since then and look wonderful. However, we now have run into a problem. There are weevils attacking the plants in our yard and I’m afraid our flowers are sitting ducks until we find a way to deal with them.

In other words, the flowers have no protection against the weevils and are in danger of being destroyed.

Synonyms / Related Phrases:
1. Dead meat
2. Out in the open
A sitting duck on water.

How Do Ducks Sit On The Water?

Ducks float ever so gently on the surface of the water, but have you ever wondered how they do it? Ducks have an oil gland (also referred to as a preen gland) that produces oil. They use this oil by rubbing it all over their feathers, making them waterproof. So their feathers repel water and that helps them to float, but not only that, their feathers can also trap air, which helps to increase buoyancy.

Ducks are omnivores, so their diet includes all sorts of things. They’ll eat insects like flies, bees, and mosquitoes. They’ll also eat grass and weeds. And while ducks are sitting out on the water, they have the perfect view for spotting any tiny fish swimming nearby, which they will gladly eat if the opportunity arises.

But since ducks are so buoyant, how can they reach the fish that are under the water?

While it is true that duck feathers trap air, thus making them float so well, ducks can actually release this air when they want to. This enables them to submerge themselves underwater to the extent that they can grab little fishes that are passing by

Origin Of ‘Sitting Ducks’

This phrase likely comes from hunting, where sitting ducks are easy prey for hunters. To elaborate:

There are ducks (like the mallard) that are known as “dabbling ducks,” which means they look for their food near the water’s surface. These ducks are often seen floating, or “sitting” on top of the water as they search for their food. Sitting ducks are especially vulnerable to hunters during this time because they are out in the open with no protection and are pretty much just holding still, which makes them easy targets to hit.

Anyways, the earliest appearance of this phrase in print that I could find is from The Courier-Mail, September 12, 1940:

“The German airmen are shooting ‘sitting ducks,’ yet, night and day, from low and high altitudes, they have succeeded only in hitting residential districts.”


Example Sentence(s)

  1. There’s an orange cat in the middle of the road that’s a sitting duck for oncoming traffic.
  2. During recess, Josh and Vincent felt like sitting ducks while playing dodgeball

Note: We have the meanings for common phrases, and even the origins for them too! However, the origins for many idioms are unclear. Often times, the origins you see listed are plausible theories to how an idiom came to be, but may not necessarily so. Moreover, the quotes you see that contain the phrase are the oldest that I could find.

Keep in mind, just because you see a saying in a newspaper from 1850 does not necessarily mean that it originated from that newspaper. In all likelihood, if a saying is being used in a form of media like that, then it’s probably already a known phrase and is thus, from an earlier time. The purpose of the old quotes I list is to give you a rough idea on how old some phrases are.