Sitting Ducks – Meaning and Origin


If something is described as a ‘sitting duck,’ that means it lacks protection and is in a vulnerable position.

Example: A variety of colorful flowers have bloomed in our front yard and they look beautiful. However, there is a problem. Beetles are attacking the other plants in our yard and I fear the flowers may be next. They are sitting ducks out there, so we need to find a way to deal with this insect soon.

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. Additionally, their feathers can also trap air, which increases their 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. However, while ducks are sitting out on the water, they can be vulnerable to attack. Which brings us to the next part—where this phrase originates from.

The Origin Of ‘Sitting Ducks’

This phrase likely comes from hunting because ‘sitting ducks’ can be easy prey for hunters. To elaborate:

Some ducks, such as the mallard duck, are known as ‘dabbling ducks.’ This means they look for their food near the water’s surface. These ducks often float, or ‘sit’ on top of the water as they search for food. Sitting ducks are especially vulnerable to hunters because they are out in the open with no protection. Not to mention they aren’t moving very fast while they are sitting on the water, so it makes them easy targets.

Anyway, the earliest appearance of this phrase in print that I have seen 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 Sentences

  • I spotted an orange cat standing in the middle of the street. It’s a sitting duck on that road, so I promptly ran over and moved it to safety.
  • When Josh and Vincent played dodgeball with the rest of the class, they often felt like sitting ducks.

Similar Examples:

  • I found a lone kitten near my house; if I left it alone, it would probably be dead meat in no time, so I brought it inside to care for it.

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