Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Ask The Verb: Duck, duck, gray duck

Oooh, this new feature could keep me busy ... I've already gotten a couple of questions and none so far from the people who were bugging me to try this Ask The Verb thing. The very first query was a question posted as a comment on the last post:
Well, here's one: has anyone ever come up with an explanation as to Minnesota's "duck, duck, grey duck" phenomenon? It seems bizarre that something like that would be so universal within Minnesota but stop pretty much right at the border.
A rich and beautiful question, as it happens, for multiple reasons:
  • First, the link is to an old piece by James Lileks, of Gobbler fame. Good start!
  • Second, this is a very robust view — people in the Upper Midwest firmly believe that the game is called that in Minnesota but 'duck, duck, goose' or something else in other places. The Dictionary of American Regional English reports the relevant variant in Minnesota and only there. So, the first pass at the data suggests that the generalization holds.
  • Third, it raises a cool broader issue: We always say that dialect features don't recognize state lines. How can we get exceptions to this?
We can get some more data on this, first: Mister Poll actually has a poll on the question (here). [If you're going to answer the poll, do it before you continue reading, if you're not already ruined for those purposes.]

[Resume reading …] The results suggest a heavy concentration in Minnesota but a good smattering of attestations outside of the state, especially in Wisconsin. So, the boundary doesn't look so firm, crossing the Mississippi River.

But I think there's more here: Some features have emerged or are emerging as stereotypes of state speech. In Wisconsin, that's bubbler for 'drinking fountain'. That term is the answer you get if you go around asking Wisconsinites what linguistic features they associate with the state. In fact, I hear this often from people who report that they don't use it and who do have a full palette of Wisconsin / Upper Midwestern features. Just a hunch, but I think duck, duck, gray duck has caught on in just that kind of role in Minnesota.

26 comments:

The Ridger, FCD said...

You know, "duck, duck, goose" works better because geese are actually much more likely to chase foxes than ducks of any color ... well, except maybe those scary Muscovy ducks with the claws on their feet.

Mr. Verb said...

Yeah, geese used to be regarded as scary in many circles.

The Ridger, FCD said...

Trust me, geese are scary. When a mallard thinks you're too close to her babies, she shoos them away. A goose takes off after you - hissing, wings flailing, ready to bite and stomple (well, threatening to stomple). And when a big Canada gander comes at you that way, if you don't back away, you're a better man than I am.

Mr. Verb said...

Better? Or dumber?

Cassaday Rasmussen said...

I give you the goose of justice...

http://bikesnobnyc.blogspot.com/2008/05/uncommon-valor-protecting-humanity-for.html

be fearful if you have a pieplate...

Carol Liller said...

Re: bubblers....Wisconsin has bubblers but only Minnesota uses the word 'binder' to describe a rubber band.

Mr. Verb said...

Well, thanks, Carol. That's something I've meant to look up in the Dictionary of American Regional English for a long time but never got around to it. They list it as 'scattered but esp. MN', with attestations from really diverse areas.

That is, it may be like 'bubbler' -- something that's developing as a state stereotype from a form that wasn't earlier.

Kristen S. said...

I'm a native Mini-sotan, and we definitely played "duck, duck, gray duck" when I was a gosling. Myabe it's the stuff of myth now, like the bubblers, bu tit was alive and well in the mid- to late-70's!

kelly.malone said...
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Ann Marie said...

I'm a native Minnesotan, and I'm only 24, so I can tell you "duck, duck, gray duck" was alive and well at least until the early '90s! I'd never even HEARD of "duck, duck, goose" until I was in high school and that was from an out of state friend.

Anonymous said...

I'm just out of high school, from minnesota, and we definetly play duck duck gray duck.

Mr. Verb said...

Excellent!

Anonymous said...

I'm from Texas. When I was in kindergarten, I remember one substitute teacher who insisted that we say "gray duck" instead of the usual "goose".

Quercki said...

Maybe there was a group who found out the other meaning of "goose". I'd change it to "gray duck" if my school class started doing that.

http://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=goose

D. Goldberg said...

Someone once explained the history behind this argument to me. Long ago some kids from Minnesota invented the game "Duck, Duck, Grey Duck."

All the Minnesotan kids loved it, and decided to share it with kids around the country. But when they tried to explain how it worked, the other kids weren't smart enough to distinguish between a duck and a grey duck.

Feeling frustrated, the kids from Minnesota just threw their hands in the air exclaiming, "We'll have to dumb it down. Just say 'Goose'!"

And that is why some people call it Grey Duck and others call it Goose.

Anonymous said...

That poll is not very well constructed. From my quick view of it, it looks like there is no option for having grown up in MN but living elsewhere now, which would influence what one calls it. My guess is that a lot of the instances of it that you find outside of MN are people who moved.

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Sheryl said...

My wife is from Illinois; she grew up playing "goose". After years of trying to explain to her that it was "grey duck", I've come to the conclusion that Goldberg's explanation is the correct one-- after all in Illinois they say "kaddy-corner".

Chris said...

"Duck, Duck, Gray duck", is simply too many syllables. And the word bubbler is not a Wisconsin anomaly per se. The Kohler Company of Kohler, Wisconsin produced a trademarked drinking fountain of that name for many decades.

Anonymous said...

I'm only 14, and it's still duck, duck, gray duck. For what it's worth.

Anonymous said...

I grew up in MN and always played duck, duck, GREY DUCK! My kids now play the same. Not too many syllables, and more fun to exclaim GREY DUCK! than just goose. Really, try it. Also, it has something to do with the original Swedish name Anka Anka, Gråttanka - duck, duck, grey duck, NOT duck, duck, goose.

Anonymous said...

I grew up in MN and always played duck, duck, GREY DUCK! My kids now play the same. Not too many syllables, and more fun to exclaim GREY DUCK! than just goose. Really, try it. Also, it has something to do with the original Swedish name Anka Anka, Gråttanka - duck, duck, grey duck, NOT duck, duck, goose.

clarence227 said...

Duck, Duck, Grey Duck was a Scandinavian game based on the Hans Christian Anderson story “The Ugly Duckling”. In the story the ugly duckling is described as “a grey odd looking duck”. The game replaces the feeling of isolation that the vocal taunting by the normal ducklings caused the ugly ducking and substitutes it with the actual physical isolation of the child tapped as the grey duck. The first traces of the game in the US was in a Swedish settlement in Minnesota called Lindstrom, The Swedish name for it is “Anka Anka, Gråttanka” and that translates to Duck, Duck, Grey Duck. I have no idea why the other 49 states call it Duck, Duck, Goose.

Anonymous said...

i really dont beleive this to be true..if minnisira is the inly state to say grey duck.then the true answer is goose.u mn peeps are backwards and didnt get it. also where i come from we make ham wraps with green onions and cream cheese.. mn uses pickels.keep it green.either they are both good.

Anonymous said...

because they just do.and kids will always play it the way their family and friends play the game.so no matter where u are in the world it is how it is! do u know how morbid the game ring around the rosies is? if u know where that originated from would u still let kids carry it on today!

Anonymous said...

I'm from Minnesota, and the reason the we say Grey Duck is because the game is based on the story of the Ugly Duckling by Hans Christian Anderson. In that story you'll remember that the baby ducks make their assumption that the ugly duckling is ugly because he is grey not yellow like they are. However the duck turns out to not be a duck at all, but instead a Swan. There are no geese in the story at all. Unfortunately as the game spread new people who learned it didn't understand what the game was all about so they changed it to goose probably because they thought it was a shorter thing to say and it stuck out more. The correct game however is duck duck grey duck.