Ugly Duckling – Its Meaning and Story


The term “ugly duckling” means that someone might look plain at first in appearance or capability, but later they turn out to be quite beautiful or spectacular.

Example: My dog had a litter of puppies and they all looked strong and healthy, except for one of them. He was scrawny compared to the others. But as it turns out, he was the ugly duckling of the group because after a year went by and they were all grown up, that scrawny puppy was the best looking of them all.

Synonyms/Related: a fish out of water, a square peg in a round hole, out of place

The Ugly Duckling Story
“Those swans are so beautiful. If only I could be like them.”

The Origin Of “Ugly Duckling”

It’s believed that this phrase originated from the literary fairy tale The Ugly Duckling, by Hans Christian Anderson. The book was first published in 1843, so that means the idiom must have originated either from that year or sometime after.

The earliest I could find this phrase with its figurative meaning and not used in relation to the fairy tale is from Stevens Point Daily Journal, 1883:

“She gazed me at through her gold-rimmed glasses then remarked to Mrs. Maria, as though I were not present: ‘If this is the ugly duckling, ‘pon my honor she does not strike me as so plain as she has been painted.”

Tip: If you want to see more English phrases starting with “U” and “V” then we have a list for you! In fact, you can access our list of sayings by using the menu at the top. There are hundreds to explore!

The Ugly Duckling Story

If you’re curious about the classic story of The Ugly Duckling, here it is:

The story begins with the eggs of a mother duck hatching. As the baby ducklings emerge from their shells, one them looked different. He was bigger, and he was white, not yellow like the rest. Because he looked so different, the other ducklings and farm animals made fun of him. Their words hurt, so this ‘ugly duckling’ ran away from home.

Now he was all alone, wandering aimlessly through the wilderness. Eventually, this poor duckling saw a group of swans coming out from the brush. As they spread their wings and flew off into the sky, he couldn’t help but stare at their splendor and think: “They’re so beautiful!” But alas, he was unable to join them because he was too young and could not fly.

‚ÄčTime passed and winter arrived. Everything became cold and so the little duckling began to freeze. Just then, a farmer discovered the frozen duckling. She grabbed him and brought him to a warm home. However, the farmer’s children were far very noisy, so he ran away because he was scared of them.

Once again he was by himself and freezing. Somehow the duckling managed to survive the harsh winter by staying in a cave. Spring was now here, and look at that! The duckling has grown much larger. Despite this, he was still sad.

He then caught sight of those incredible swans he saw from earlier. He wanted so badly to join them, but he couldn’t because he thought they would reject him. “I’m just too ugly,” the duckling cried.

The swans heard him crying, so they went over to see what was wrong. After examining him for a moment, they welcomed him as one of their own. This was very surprising to the duckling. Why would they do that?At that moment, he saw his reflection in the water. Why, he wasn’t an ‘ugly duckling’ after all! He was, in fact, a beautiful swan.

Example Sentence(s)

  • Sam just joined our baseball team and he’s definitely the ugly duckling of the group. However, I think he has potential to be great.

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