These Ducks Can’t Walk“This week, the lame ducks are returning to Congress for their last bit of legislating (making laws). But no one seems too excited to see them.” That was the lede (or lead; the first sentence or paragraph) for a news story in the Washington Post last week.

Other newspapers and websites echoed (repeated) those feelings in their headlines (the title of a news story):

  • Lamest Lame Duck (Politico)
  • How Lame Will The Lame Ducks Be? (The Atlantic)
  • Don’t Let Lame Ducks Spend Your Money (American Spectator)

We all probably know what a duck is. But, a lame duck? If you know the word “lame”, you might say that a lame duck is a duck that can’t walk because its foot or leg is weak (not strong) or injured (hurt) – like the duck in the photo.

You’d be right, but in politics, “lame” means something different. Let me try to explain. In the U.S., our national elections (when we vote) are always early (near the beginning) in November. But the president and Congress – members of the Senate and House of Representatives – don’t take office (begin work) until later, in January. Each session (work year) of Congress begins on January 3rd, and a new president takes office on January 20th.

Do you see the problem?

Between election day and January 3rd or 20th, people who were not reelected (elected again) have to go to work, but they have no real power because their jobs will soon end. In a very short time, someone else will have their job. These people are the lame ducks.

An American newspaper first used the word “lame duck” this way in 1863 during our Civil War. In 1932, Will Rogers – an American cowboy and a very funny man who became a popular performer and writer – suggested his own definition. He wrote that a lame duck Congress is “like where some fellows (men) worked for you and their work wasn’t satisfactory (good enough) and you let ‘em (them) out, but after you fired (told them they had to leave their job) ‘em, you let ‘em stay long enough so they could burn your house down.”

This situation may seem strange to people from countries where politicians begin their terms (time in political office) shortly (very soon) after they are elected. But it’s actually better in the U.S. today than it used to be. Before 1933, the president and Congress began their terms in March. The 20th Amendment (change) to the U.S. Constitution (the highest law of the government) moved the beginning of the terms to January, where they are today.

I guess you could say that we haven’t eliminated (gotten rid of) the lame ducks, but we have shortened their lives.

~ Warren Ediger – ESL coach/tutor and creator of the Successful English web site, where you’ll find clear explanations and practical suggestions for better English.

Information source: Washington Post.
Photo (edited) courtesy of Wikipedia Commons.

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12 Responses to These Ducks Can’t Walk

  1. Dan says:

    Hi Warren Happy thanksgiving to all of you over there and families included.

    Well, speaking of politicians, as every single Italian (but I guess it’s like that in every country) I used to complain about the polarization of our political system
    and the effect of it that nothing moves or gets done.

    I do not know why, but looking at you guys over there in the same situation and people complaining that nothing gets done, I do not know, but that makes me feel better
    and I have changed my view toward my government that, after all is not that bad.

    As often happens I had created a better idea in my mind of the US government/politicians.

    Not that I follow that much politics, but, you know, it’s kind of inevitable reading the news.

    If I may, something funny I have read recently on the comment section of NPR about an article of human waste recycling program that uses poop for running buses and other stuff.

    A funny guy as a comment wrote something like ” what’s the news! our government/congress has benn running on bull**** for years” hahahaha.

    I love reading comments. There are many funny people out there.


  2. Marcos says:

    Hi everyone

    Here we’ve our own Lame Duck like the duck in the photo but with two legs weak because the national elections are always early in october and Congress begins on january first. Since the Carnaval ( traditional party ) is in february and people say here that year begins on february after Carnaval, so you know what two legs weak

    Thank you Warren and great weekend everyone

  3. Tania says:

    Hi! I have found the explanation of the phrase “lame duck” in the Webster’s New World Dictionary.
    We use the same word “lame” for a cloth interwoven with metal threads, as of gold or silver.
    Thank you for your detailed explanation understanding better.

  4. Tania says:

    Hi! Every year you post about Thanksgiving Day. As it is not and our holiday we can forget that Thanksgiving Day
    is a national holiday celebrated primarily in the U.S. and Canada as a day of giving thanks for the blessing of the harvest.
    I have seen on TV how the President Barack Obama rescued the two turkeys.

  5. Tania says:



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  7. peter says:

    Sweet nice little story
    Thanks for the history lesson
    It was quite cheerful and amusing
    I am entertained thanks
    U know all the political talk makes my head spin. I can’t make heads or tails out of it.
    Still , Warren simplified the whole thing so I can understand.
    The truth is ,I knew the term already. I took interest in the way Warren break it down.

    Pete from the south end of Cabada

  8. Narges says:

    I wasn’t interested in politics at all. But when I listen to Jeff, i got interested too.

  9. emiliano says:



  10. Yohan says:

    Tnxs about lame ducks! I wondar what will be the next lame ducks will be after i know the defintion i can’t wait to know next one and entire years

  11. lili:) says:

    Dear Emiliano


    Sorry I am late in sending you this good wishes.


    I learned the word “unbirthday” from you Emiliano, and I don’t have problem remembering it.

    How are you getting on with your novel writing? I hope you enjoy every minute of the writing.


  12. emiliano says:

    Thank you Lili, thank you very much.
    Little by Little the story is going on.

    I use to read the ESL blog, but my mind is in Spanish noe.


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