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. Well, except for one. 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.

1. A fish out of water
2. A square peg in a round hole
3. 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 is a summary of it:

The story begins with the eggs of a mother duck hatching. Baby ducklings emerge from their shells and one them looks different from the rest. The other ducklings and animals on the farm make fun of him because he is an ‘ugly duckling,’ so he runs away from home.

Now all alone and wandering aimlessly through the wilderness, he catches sight of a group of swans. As they fly away, he thinks to himself: “They are so beautiful.” However, he could not join them because he was too young and could not fly.

Time passes and eventually the duckling grows larger. However, he is still sad. Later, he catches sight of those swans again. He wanted to join them so badly, but he thought they would reject him. “I’m just too ugly,” the duckling cried.

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

Example Sentences

  • 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.

Similar Examples:

  • I feel so out of place at my school, but maybe things will get better once I’ve had time to settle in.
  • I’m playing basketball for the first time and I’m a fish out of water compared to the other players.