Episode 254: December 16, 2010
by Mignon Fogarty
I was looking at lists of interesting words this week, and I ran across one that I've heard [a lot] regularly but seemed like an odd word because I couldn’t identify a root word that made sense. The word is "canard." What is a canard, and where does the word come from?
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What Is a Canard?
A canard is story--usually a damaging story--that’s false, but purports to be true. It can be a rumor, a hoax, or an out-and-out lie. If I reported that George W. Bush and Bill Clinton had paid the bail for Wikileaks founder Julian Assange and then spirited him off to a safe hiding place in North Korea, that would be a canard.
“Canard” Comes from the French Word for “Duck”
“Canard” also has specialized meanings in aeronautics and cooking, and the cooking part isn't surprising because “canard” literally means "duck" in French--the scary birds that quack.
I’m afraid of ducks. Pat likes to feed them, and I get edgy when they are surrounding us with their hungry, zombie like determination and quacking. I’m certain that if they worked together, they could take us down.
You Can’t Sell Half a Duck
So how do we get from ducks to an absurd, baseless rumor? The Oxford English Dictionary and the Online Etymology Dictionary both cite an old French expression to describe a scheme or a hoax that means “to sell half a duck.” Clearly, you can’t sell half a duck, or at least not half a live duck, so presumably the story is about a seller who cheated a buyer by selling only half a duck. Those crazy Frenchmen.
Canards in the News
"Canard" isn't a commonly used term, but it's not archaic either. A Google News search, for example, returned about 1,500 news stories that used the word "canard" in the last week.
The first written reference in Websters is from the mid-1860s in the Evening Standard. "A silly canard circulated by the Owl about England having joined France and Russia in 'offering' their mediation to the belligerents."
I like to stay away from politics in the podcast, so I couldn't use most of the sentences from the Google news stories that include the word "canard." Common usage, at least in the news, seems to lean toward some of the most contentious or offensive opinions.
A letter to the editor of the Aspen Times about local political campaign shenanigans had a clever line about a canard though. The citizen, Michale Conniff, described what he considered a baseless claim that a campaign he was involved in emptied all the newspaper boxes in the downtown area (1). He summed up by writing, “I would call this a gross canard if it were not unfair to ducks everywhere." I thought that was great.
It isn’t always such horrible things that are canards though. Michael Quinion of the World Wide Words website, used it two times that I could find to refer to grammar myths. For example, he notes that Bryan Garner “dismisses the canard that you must not start a sentence with a conjunction (2)."
What is a Petard?
When I was originally thinking about this topic I got confused between "canard" and "petard." There's a common saying that someone has been "hoisted on his own petard," and I was thinking that it was "hoisted on his own canard." I believe that would be what is called a malapropism, which I've covered in the podcast and written about in my books, but I'll repeat here for those of you who haven't heard it before.
What is a Malapropism?
The name malapropism comes from a character called Mrs. Malaprop in a 1775 Richard Sheridan play, “The Rivals.” Mrs. Malaprop's comical feature was using wrong words that sounded almost right--for example, saying someone is the very pineapple of politeness instead of the very pinnacle of politeness or that "She's as headstrong as an allegory on the banks of the Nile," instead of "She's as headstrong as an alligator on the banks of the Nile." So confusing “canard” for “petard” could be a language mix-up called a malapropism since the two words sound similar.
A Petard is a Weapon
Thinking about the origin of "canard," it wouldn't really make sense to hoist someone on a duck or hoist someone on a hoax. No, a petard is a weapon. I would have though that it would be some kind of spear, but it’s not. It’s a small bomb--the kind of thing used to blast entry into a building during the middle ages, and to be hoisted on your own petard literally means to be blown into the air by your own bomb, and figuratively means to get caught in a problem of your own making. Like “canard,” the word also comes to English from French.
“Hoisted on His Own Petard” Comes from Shakespeare
The phrase we're all familiar with--to be hoisted on your own petard--comes from Shakespeare's “Hamlet.” Hamlet says, "For tis sport to have the engineer hoist with his own petard."
So this week, don't go half-selling any ducks or making any ridiculous false claims, or you may be accused of putting forth a canard, and if you're caught in such a bind, you may be said to have been hoisted on your own petard.
Mignon Fogarty is the author of The Grammar Devotional, which has a whole year’s worth of fun writing tips and makes a great gift.
Conniff, M. “Cleverlygate Begins,” Aspen Times July 15, 2010 http://tinyurl.com/3yyq9qp (accessed November 19, 2010).