Martin Fone, author of 50 Curious Questions, explains how a duck egg led to the popularisation of a term in one of the world's great sports.
Cricket is one of those marmite games, you either love it or hate it. For those living outside the influence of what was the British Empire, it is nigh on incomprehensible. How can you play for five days and sometimes not get a result? How does leg before wicket work? The rule seems to be designed to perplex all but the most ardent students of the game. But for chaps of my vintage there is nothing better than spending a warm summer’s day, glass in hand, listening to the sound of willow striking leather.
When I turned my hand to the game, I was no great shakes with the bat and my time at the crease rarely troubled the scorer. Being out without scoring, a duck in cricketing parlance, is an occupational hazard even for the professional cricketer. The Australian batsman, Mark Waugh, recorded four successive ducks in the second and third tests against Sri Lanka in 1992, earning him the nickname of Audi from his teammates – think of the logo of their sponsor at the time. One more duck and he would have been called Olympics.
Breaking your duck means, in cricket, scoring your first runs and in more general parlance, achieving for the first time something you have been striving for. But why is scoring nought in the game of cricket called a duck?
‘What outraged the great British public was not Reade’s explanation of the vocabulary of cricket but his strong attack on the current asylum system’
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It is all to do with the similarity of the symbol of a nought and the shape of the egg of a duck. Charles Reade explained the reference in a passage from his controversial book, Very Hard Cash, serialised in Charles Dicken’s periodical, All The Year Round, and published in 1863; “Alfred told her “the round 0” which had yielded to “the duck’s-egg” and was becoming obsolete, meant the cipher set by the scorer against a player’s name, who is out without making a run”. What outraged the great British public was not Reade’s explanation of the vocabulary of cricket but his strong attack on the current asylum system. Sales of the periodical plummeted and at the end of the serialisation Dickens was forced to append a note distancing it from Reade’s views to arrest the slump.
‘Mr Stuart was glad to find Mr Payne had broken his duck’s egg at the Council (Laughter)’
George H Selkirk summed it all up rather succinctly in his Guide to the Cricket Ground, published in 1867, when he defined duck’s egg thus: “when a batsman makes 0 in an innings. If he makes one run he has “broken his duck’s egg; ” and if he makes 0 in each innings he is said to have made a “pair of spectacles.”” Inevitably, duck’s egg was abbreviated to duck, as a forgiving correspondent to British Sports and Pastimes noted in 1868; “…his fear of a “duck” – as by a pardonable contraction from duck-egg, a nought is called in cricket-play..”
So popular was cricket as a sport in the late nineteenth century that its terminology began to drift into everyday speech and assume a wider meaning. In particular, breaking your duck came to mean achieving something for the first time as this extract from a report of proceedings of a meeting at the Rotherhithe Vestry in the South London Press of July 7, 1894 shows; “Mr Stuart was glad to find Mr Payne had broken his duck’s egg at the Council (Laughter)”. I can’t help thinking that the demise of the local press will deprive future generations of such gems in years to come.
‘To the Americans, the game of cricket is a closed book, although they do have baseball which in my experience, I have been to a number of games, makes cricket look exciting’
And we will be all the poorer for reports of spats which might not trouble the editors of our national papers like this rather strange altercation between two Alfreds, reported in Sheffield’s Evening Telegraph and Star on September 26, 1888. A Mr Wilmott was playing a game of billiards when Alfred Webdale came in and called him “The Baron”. Being a man of strong democratic sentiments, Wilmott took extreme umbrage at this piece of badinage and drew his pistol, which he happened to have about his person. The report goes on, “Fortunately, Mr Wilmott’s aim with the pistol was not equal to that with the cue, and by Webdale ducking his head beneath the table, the infuriated marksman scored a “duck””. Alas, poor Wilmott was brought before the magistrates.
To the Americans, the game of cricket is a closed book, although they do have baseball which in my experience, I have been to a number of games, makes cricket look exciting. But they do have an expression lay an egg, which sprang up in the 1920s, particularly in show-business circles, and means something which comes to nothing or crashes and burns. One of the most famous headlines containing the phrase appeared in the theatrical magazine, Variety, which, when commenting on the Wall Street crash in 1929, exclaimed “Wall Street lays an egg”. Is it too fanciful to think that the egg in question is a duck’s and that it shows cricket’s ability to permeate the subconscious of every English-speaking nation?
Be that as it may, I for one am looking forward to lots of Australian ducks this summer.
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