A canard and half selling a duck

I don’t know if you have heard the word “canard” used recently to refer to a false or fabricated news story or rumour. Perhaps there are too many such stories nowadays to even bother identifying them. The term originates from the French word for “duck” with several rather eccentric explanations to explain how it came to mean a hoax or a fabricated story.

The main explanation for the origin of the word “canard” for a fabricated story comes from an old French expression “vendre un canard à moitié”. It translates in English to “to half-sell a duck.” It was used to describe a trick or deceit, implying that someone was only being sold part of what they were promised.

The tale goes that Pierre is selling ducks in a French market for eight francs each. Jacques sets up nearby offering his ducks for seven francs each. A fierce price war ensues with Jacques eventually lowering his price to three francs per duck, leaving Pierre no profit at all. Undeterred, Pierre puts up a sign selling the ducks for two francs with a small caveat at the bottom “for half a duck.”

Another story, also from France, attributes the origin to Norbert Cornelissen (1769-1849) a Belgian botanist who was experimenting with the gullibility of the public. He reported to the newspapers that he had a flock of twenty ducks—he took one, killed it, cut it into small pieces and fed it to the other nineteen, which devoured it ravenously. Cornelissen repeated the experiment—”in an amazingly short space of time,” he declared, “the flock was reduced to a single duck, which had eaten his nineteen brothers”. The story was as equally devoured by the press and, of course, Monsieur Cornelissen only ever had one duck.

There is another theory for the origin of canard (with a personal flavour), which is simply that the word “duck” has long been associated with falsehoods. The German word for a duck (“ente”) can also mean a lie or a newspaper hoax. It is also seen in the expression “blaue Enten” meaning “lies, humbug”, literally “blue ducks”.

My surname Entwisle, is supposedly a translation from Anglo-Saxon for “by a duck pond”. Which means, perhaps you should be careful of what you believe from my writing.