Both “duct tape” and “duck tape” are acceptable, but the name has a long and confusing history.
Many people have asked whether the correct term is “duct tape” or “duck tape” or if maybe both exist and there’s a difference.
The especially sticky and especially strong tape that helps you MacGyver your way through life is known today as “duct tape.” But the name has a long and confusing history.
It was invented by a division of Johnson & Johnson in the 1940s and used by American soldiers in World War II, reportedly “for everything from repairing broken windows to making temporary bandages,” and soldiers called it “duck tape.”
After the war, it was used by construction workers to hold ventilation ducts together, and at this point it was silver colored to match the ducts it was holding together, and it was generally referred to as “duct tape.”
According to SureTech Brands, which now owns the trademark on the name Duck Tape, duct tape wasn’t marketed to the general public until 1978. It was sold by Manco, Inc., and they made their version green instead of silver. It wasn’t marketed as Duck Tape until 1980 at which point they also made the tape in other colors. Of course, today it’s available in all kinds of colors and prints, and I see it sold in craft stores. My friend’s daughter used to make colorful purses and wallets out of it.
The Original Duck Tape
An interesting side note, and another reason people may be confused about whether it’s called “duct tape” or “duck tape," is that the backing of the original tape was a type of woven cotton called duck cloth. “Duck” in this sense comes from the Dutch word “doeck,” which means “linen cloth.”
And long before World War II, electricians were using tape from duck cloth that they called “duck tape,” For example, this instruction is from an 1894 article about amateur motor building in a magazine called “The Electrical World”:
In belting from the motor, connect to as large a pulley as possible and practical, and use a heavy duck tape, one inch wide, such as printers use on their large presses.
But adhesive tapes weren’t in wide use at that time, so tape usually wasn’t tape as we think of it today. It was just long strips of duck cloth.
Today, the tape is generically known as duct tape and sold under the brand name Duck Tape.
‘Duct Tape’ and ‘Duck Tape’
To sum up, first it was duck tape, which was just strips of duck cloth; then it was duck tape with adhesive like we think of today and it was used by soldiers; then it was duct tape mostly used in construction; and finally today it is generically known as duct tape and also sold by one company under the brand name Duck Tape.
Mignon Fogarty is Grammar Girl and the founder of Quick and Dirty Tips. Check out her New York Times best-seller, “Grammar Girl’s Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing.”
Image by Mignon Fogarty