(n.) a deliberate falsehood or rumour
The fact that the French word for “duck”, canard, can be used in English to mean “a deliberate falsehood or rumour” proved popular on HH this week. And as we mentioned over on Twitter, at the root of that fact is an old French idiomatic expression, bailler un canard à moitié—“to sell half a duck”—that can be used to mean “to cheat” or “swindle”.
But where did that expression come from in the first place?
Well, there’s an old wives’ tale here that claims it comes from the days of Napoleon Bonaparte. Emperor Napoleon, so the story goes, would publish accounts of his military exploits and victories in lavish propagandizing newspapers, on the front of which was an image of his grand imperial eagle. All those who disliked the Emperor and his stranglehold rule over France dismissively referred to this eagle as Napoleon’s canard—and, ultimately, to sell someone “half a duck” came to imply that you had successfully convinced them of one of the Emperor’s half-true, self-aggrandizing tales.
It’s a neat theory certainly. But it’s also a misguided one.
It’s true, certainly, that numerous anti-establishment and satirical newspapers have borne the name Le Canard over the years in France, most notably Le Canard Enchaîné, or “The Chained Duck”, which published groundbreaking investigative journalism to counteract the propaganda of the French government during the First World War.
Newspapers like these, however, tended to flourish in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in France—while the expression bailler un canard à moitié has been traced back as far as the mid 1500s. Perhaps, then, the true origin of this phrase may well be nothing more than a disreputable butcher or market trader literally selling half a duck to some gullible customer who presumed they were taking home the full bird?
Either way, whatever its origin the phrase had caught on enough to inspire the use of the word canard to mean a rumour or falsehood in French by the mid 1700s, and a century later the word finally began to emerge in English in the same context.