Image description: A color cartoon drawing of a white duck with George Bush's head and one hand, but a duck bill for a mouth. He's holding the red hotline phone and there's a cast on one duck foot. The cast has the seal of the president on it.
Like most people I know, it's been a refreshing change these past couple weeks to see how mostly toothless Bush appears after so many years of his callous destructiveness. But I tire of hearing the term "lame duck." It is ableist, of course, yet so ubiquitous most people don't think about it.
A "lame duck" is, literally, one that cannot keep up with the flock, and the primary definition provided by Merriam-Webster is "one that is weak or that falls behind in ability or achievement."
According to The Phrase Finder, the earliest recorded use of the term as a metaphor dates to 1761 and investors in the London Stock Exchange who couldn't pay their debts. Along with "bull market" and "bear market," "lame duck" was part of 18th-century stock trading lingo. How that came to be may or may not have something to do with the British game cricket:
In Horace Walpole's Letters to Sir Horace Mann, 1761, we have:
"Do you know what a Bull, and a Bear, and a Lame Duck are?"
In 1771, David Garrick, in Prologue to Foote's Maid of Bath wrote:
"Change-Alley bankrupts waddle out lame ducks!"
In 1772, the Edinburgh Advertiser included:
"Yesterday being the settling day for India stock, the bulls had a balance to pay to the bears to the amount of 23 per cent. Only one lame duck waddled out of the alley, and that for no greater a sum than 20,000."
We are still familiar with the terms 'bull market' and 'bear market', referring to rising and falling markets respectively, but 'lame duck' in the specifically stock trading context is now little used.
Why should someone who has no assets be called a 'duck'? Could it be related to the cricketing term, 'out for a duck' - used when a batman is out without scoring any runs? It seems not. That term is much later and refers to the zero on the scoreboard being similar to a duck's egg. First used in 1867, in G. H. Selkirk's Guide to Cricket Grounds:
"If he makes one run he has 'broken his duck's egg'."
The term made its way to American politics, with the first reference here in 1863 and the first presidential reference about Calvin Coolidge in 1926. Back then, out-going politicians had about 60 days longer to wreak havoc before newly elected representatives took office. The 20th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, also sometimes referred to as the Lame Duck Amendment, shortened that time to it's current length, with new Congressional members taking office on January 3 and the president on January 20 following November elections.
"Lame duck" is particularly ableist since its current use refers not only to the decreased political power of elected officials who are slated to be replaced but also to the lack of accountability those politicians face. The daily "Quackitude" report on The Rachel Maddow Show on MSNBC, for example, covers both instances where Bush seems to be conceding his position to Obama already and the executive orders that reveal a gross misuse of power by bypassing legislative approval of things like uranium mining along the Colorado River.
I love Maddow and her show, but here's the relevant part of the November 7 show transcript that puts it all together under "Lame Duck Watch":
We elected a new president this week, but there are still 10 scary weeks left of the Bush administration when anything can happen and most likely will.
And so we are back with another installment of our public service series, the RACHEL MADDOW SHOW "Lame Duck Watch" because somebody has to do it.
On the agenda at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, in the last couple days, nearly nobody watched. Scrapping Mid-East peace. Now, there's an idea. About a year ago, the Bush administration invited officials for nearly 50 countries to Annapolis, Maryland for a meeting with Israelis and Palestinians to try to forge peace before the end of the Bush era.
It widely considered the president's attempt to save a sliver of his otherwise, rather soily international legacy. At the time, those talks were deemed a success by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. And the administration vowed to keep working on this until Bush left office. They said they would get a deal before the end of the year.
Well, yesterday, the administration announced, forget it. They called off plans for any further talks before the end of the year. Legacy shmegacy. We've got an environment to wreck while we still have a chance.
They didn't say that thing about the environment, but yes. President Bush's Interior Department is busy relaxing environmental protection rules on mining for uranium within three miles of the Grand Canyon, you know, where the Colorado River runs, the one that provides drinking water for Phoenix, Vegas and L.A.
"Mommy, I didn't ask for lemonade. It's not lemonade, Sweetie. It's the seepage off those radioactive tailings. How much better would it be if January 20th were like tomorrow?
Daily, Maddow links impotent power with irresponsible use of what power Bush has left. So does everyone else. So being a "lame duck" is not just about being ineffective (which is ableist enough by itself), it's also about being an asshole.