On ducks and pigs


4th May 2024


5th May 2024

A mallard, swimming like a mallard Taken from English Wikipedia, originally by User:Kitkatcrazy, used under CC-BY-SA 3.0.

For reasons that don’t matter here, I’m reading about the origin of the “Duck test”. I’m quoting Gloria Steinem’s critical re-statement of it:

“If it walks like a duck, quacks like a duck, looks like a duck, and you think it’s a pig, it’s a pig.” – Steinem (2019)

Cross-checking various stories about the origin of this phrase, I learn that it is about abductive1 reasoning, which is a form of logical inference that seeks the simplest and most likely conclusion from a set of observations. Ironically, it seems to have been coined in its earlier form after Jacques de Vaucanson, the French inventor of a mechanical duck in 1739. His duck machine quacked, ate duck food, and defecated a substance which smelled like duck shit, earning it several names including, “le Canard défécateur”.

What I loved most of all about this little rabbit-hole was that the French Wikpedia article on the Duck test (Test du Canard) has this:

“L’origine de cet « authentique proverbe américain » est souvent attribuée au poète américain James Whitcomb Riley…”

Notice those quotation marks around “authentic American proverb”. We are not beyond redemption. There is still that delicious contempt of the French for all things worthy of it.


Steinem, Gloria. 2019. The Truth Will Set You Free, But First It Will Piss You Off!: Thoughts on Life, Love and Rebellion. 1st ed. Murdoch Books.


  1. Say it out loud. Is that not the best thing you’ve heard today?↩︎