What Is a Canard?

Quack! A strange word with an interesting origin.

Mignon Fogarty
4-minute read
Episode #503

Canards in the News

The first written reference in the Oxford English Dictionary is from the mid-1860s in the Evening Standard. It reads, "A silly canard circulated by the Owl about England having joined France and Russia in 'offering' their mediation to the belligerents."

"Canard" isn't a commonly used term today, but it's not archaic either. A Google News search, for example, returned about 30 news stories that used the word "canard" in the last week in the United States. Common usage, at least in the news, seems to lean toward some of the most contentious or offensive opinions.  

A letter to the editor of the Aspen Times about local political campaign shenanigans back in 2010 had a clever line about a canard though. The citizen, Michael Conniff, described what he considered a baseless claim that a campaign he was involved in emptied all the newspaper boxes in the downtown area. (1) He summed up by writing, “I would call this a gross canard if it were not unfair to ducks everywhere." I thought that was great.

It isn’t always such horrible things that are canards though. Michael Quinion of the World Wide Words website, used it two times that I could find to refer to grammar myths. For example, he notes that Bryan Garner “dismisses the canard that you must not start a sentence with a conjunction.”

What Is a Petard?

When I was originally thinking about this topic I got confused between "canard" and "petard." There's a common saying that someone has been "hoisted on his own petard," and I was thinking that it was "hoisted on his own canard." I believe that would be what is called a malapropism, which I've covered in the podcast and written about in my books, but I'll repeat it here for those of you who haven't heard it before.

What Is a Malapropism?

The name malapropism comes from a character called Mrs. Malaprop in a 1775 Richard Sheridan play, “The Rivals.” Mrs. Malaprop's comical feature was using wrong words that sounded almost right—for example, saying someone is the very pineapple of politeness instead of the very pinnacle of politeness or that "She's as headstrong as an allegory on the banks of the Nile," instead of "She's as headstrong as an alligator on the banks of the Nile." So confusing “canard” for “petard” could be a language mix-up called a malapropism since the two words sound similar.


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.