Tuesday, 25 October 2011

A duck lukkin fir thunner

Recently I was lucky enough to receive a copy of The Auld Meetin-Hoose Green by Arcibald McIlroy. A most enjoyable read, filled with insightful social commentary and dry Ulster-Scots wit. Towards the end of the book one of the characters descrbes his colleague as behaving 'like a duck in a thunderstorm.' A sayin' I heard often in my childhood. Along with the local variation: 'Luk at him stannin thur, like a duck lukkin fir thunner.'
A brief gleek on the Internet revealed that the poor oul duck has been getting a hard time since 1785 when the idiom appears in a lyrical ode by Peter Pindar (pseudonym of John Wolcot): "Gaping upon Tom's thumb, with me in wonder, The rabble rais'd its eyes -- like ducks in thunder." It's unclear whether Wolcot actually had close knowledge of ducks or merely needed something to rhyme with "wonder." In any case, Sir Walter Scott later used the phrase in his 1822 novel "Peveril of the Peak": "Closed her eyes like a dying fowl -- turned them up like a duck in a thunder-storm." From these and other uses since we can deduce how ducks are reputed to act in thunderstorms: they roll their eyes back in fear and then keel over dead. It's a wonder there are any ducks to be found today, given how common thunderstorms are. However I believe that Arcibald McIlroy employed the simile in the slighty less dramatic sense, we used at hame, to mean looking startled or 'dumbfoonthered' (not knowing where to turn or what to do).

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