Someone who might seem plain at first in appearance or capability, but later on 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.
The Ugly Duckling Story
Here is the classic story of The Ugly Duckling:
The story begins with the eggs of a mother duck hatching. The baby ducklings emerged from their shells, but there was one that looked different than the rest. He was bigger, and instead of being yellow, he was white. Because he looked so different, the other ducklings and animals on the farm made fun of him. Their words hurt, so this ‘ugly duckling’ ran away from home with his head held low.
Now he was all alone, wandering aimlessly through the wilderness. And no matter where he went, the other birds and animals thought he was ugly. Eventually, the poor duckling saw a group of swans coming out from the brush. As they spread their wings and flew off into the sky, the duckling 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 yet fly.
Time 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 her home. However, this new home did not last long because the farmer’s children were far too noisy. They scared the duckling, so he ran away.
Once again he was by himself and the bitter cold only made things worse. More time passed, and somehow the duckling managed to survive a harsh winter. Now spring was here, and would you look at that! The duckling had grown much larger, but was he happier? No, he was still sad. However, this was about to change.
The duckling caught sight of those same swans from earlier. He wanted to join them so badly, but he couldn’t. He thought they would reject him if he tried. “I’m just too ugly,” the duckling cried.
Consequently, these very swans heard him crying, so they went over to see what was wrong. Soon after, they welcomed him as one of their own. This was very surprising to the duckling. Just then, he saw his reflection in the water. Why, he wasn’t an ‘ugly duckling’ after all! He was, in fact, a beautiful swan.
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 the term must have originated from that year and the idiom developed shortly after.
The earliest I could find of this phrase with its figurative meaning and not used in relation to the book 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.”
- Even though Sam just joined our baseball team and isn’t as skilled as the others, I think he has potential; he’s definitely the ugly duckling of squad.