Since new U.S. presidents and members of Congress elected in November don’t actually take office until the following January, this creates an awkward gap for their predecessors. With diminished influence and little time to enact new policies, they’re often referred to as lame ducks. In other words: Their capabilities are limited and their days are numbered.
It’s not exactly true that lame-duck politicians can’t get anything done during that period. Because they no longer have to worry about keeping their constituents happy enough to get reelected, they’re free to make decisions that might not be popular with the people they govern. But while the term lame duck is now often used to refer to any outgoing politician in general—regardless of whether or not they’re figuratively limping through the end of their term—it wasn’t always that way. In fact, the phrase didn’t even originate in politics.
According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the earliest known reference to the phrase is from a letter written by British nobleman Horace Walpole in 1761. “Do you know what a Bull, and a Bear, and a Lame Duck are?” he asked. Walpole was alluding to the London Stock Exchange, where lame duck described an ill-fated investor who defaulted on their loans. Ten years later, playwright David Garrick mentioned the phrase in his prologue for Samuel Foote’s play The Maid of Bath: “Change-Alley bankrupts waddle out lame ducks!”
British citizens continued to utter “lame duck” when discussing the stock exchange throughout the 19th century, at which point it started to gain traction among U.S. financiers, too. Before long, the term had bled into other spheres of influence. Writer George W. Bungay, for example, co-opted the phrase to call out early temperance supporters who had lost faith in the movement.
“In Wall Street, New York, we have a class of men known as ‘lame ducks': they have met with financial disasters, and can not keep pace with their more successful competitors. We have lame ducks in our temperance associations, and I will briefly classify some of the men and women who do not and who will not keep up with our progressive organization. The lame ducks were once out-and-out friends of ‘the cause,’” Bungway wrote in 1869. “When they have attempted to swim in whisky, they have become ‘dead ducks.’”
The phrase might have made some small impression on Bungay’s teetotaler readers, but where it really started to stick was in politics. According to The Phrase Finder, The Congressional Globe used lame duck to describe “broken down politicians” back in 1863, and it had started to appear in newspaper articles referencing politics not long after.
In the early 1920s, lame duck made one final, flying leap to the highest office of the land. A 1926 editorial from Michigan’s Grand Rapids Press, titled “Making a Lame Duck of Coolidge,” speculated about how the upcoming Senate elections could affect the last two years of Republican Calvin Coolidge’s presidential term. If voters managed to flip the Senate to a Democratic majority—or at least closer to it—they could possibly render him ineffective.
In that case, the phrase lame duck wasn’t used in reference to the time between getting elected (or reelected) and taking office, but it soon became linked to that period specifically. Back then, presidential inaugurations occurred in March—the same month a new congressional session began. The lengthy interlude between November and March gave rise to lots of lame duck politicians, and Congress finally decided to shift the start of congressional and presidential terms from March to January. The 20th Amendment, ratified in 1933, was even sometimes called the “lame duck amendment.” Lame duck behavior may have decreased after that, but the phrase’s popularity still hasn't waned.
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