What Is a Canard?

Quack! A strange word with an interesting origin.

Mignon Fogarty
4-minute read
Episode #503

canardI was looking at lists of interesting words this week, and I ran across one that I've heard 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 Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders had met in the New Hampshire woods at midnight and danced around in tutus casting spells that jinxed their opponents, that would be a canard.

'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 meant “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. I’m sure it makes more sense in French.


About the Author

Mignon Fogarty

Mignon Fogarty is the founder of Quick and Dirty Tips and the author of seven books on language, including the New York Times bestseller "Grammar Girl's Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing." She is an inductee in the Podcasting Hall of Fame, and the show is a five-time winner of Best Education Podcast in the Podcast Awards. She has appeared as a guest expert on the Oprah Winfrey Show and the Today Show. Her popular LinkedIn Learning courses help people write better to communicate better.