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What Is a Canard?

Quack! A strange word with an interesting origin.

By
Mignon Fogarty,
December 16, 2010
Episode #254

Page 1 of 3

canardI was looking at lists of interesting words this week, and I ran across one that I've heard [a lot] regularly but seemed like an odd word because I couldn’t identify a root word that made sense. The word is "canard." What is a canard, and where does the word come from?

What Is a Canard?

A canard is story—usually a damaging story—that’s false, but purports to be true. It can be a rumor, a hoax, or an out-and-out lie. If I reported that George W. Bush and Bill Clinton had paid the bail for Wikileaks founder Julian Assange and then spirited him off to a safe hiding place in North Korea, that would be a canard.

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“Canard” Comes from the French Word for “Duck”

“Canard” also has specialized meanings in aeronautics and cooking, and the cooking part isn't surprising because “canard” literally means "duck" in French—the scary birds that quack.

I’m afraid of ducks. Pat likes to feed them, and I get edgy when they are surrounding us with their hungry, zombie like determination and quacking. I’m certain that if they worked together, they could take us down.

You Can’t Sell Half a Duck

So how do we get from ducks to an absurd, baseless rumor? The Oxford English Dictionary and the Online Etymology Dictionary both cite an old French expression to describe a scheme or a hoax that means “to sell half a duck.” Clearly, you can’t sell half a duck, or at least not half a live duck, so presumably the story is about a seller who cheated a buyer by selling only half a duck. Those crazy Frenchmen.

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