What does “Get Your Ducks in a Row” mean?


Imagine you are a teacher preparing your class for a drama to be put up on the annual concert day. The best you could do before the presentation is to ensure that all the arrangements are in place- the costumes, props, the players having rehearsed their parts and appearing on stage in proper order and so on. In short you have to “Get Your Ducks in a Row” to make the play a success.

“Get Your Ducks in a Row” is an American expression which may mean to get thing lined up or organized. A literal meaning would be to set up one’s skittles, used in a bowling alley. In American lingo, the pins or skittles used in the bowling alley are called ducks.

“Get Your Ducks in a Row” is an idiom used to mean that one should take care that every element is in order and line for the proper execution of any project or plan. An engineer may take care to see that all the details of his project are worked out in a precise and proper order before executing it.

There are speculations that the idiom “Get Your Ducks in a Row” may be another version of the original phrase “Ducts on line” used in the days of the steamship. It basically meant that the ship was all set and progressing in full speed on course.

Etymologically, the origin of the idiom “Get Your Ducks in a Row” may be from one of the many prevalent theories. The popular theory is being attributed to the game of lawn bowling which was popular in the early 1700's in Europe and America. In the earlier versions of bowling, pins of various sizes and shapes were used which eventually came to be replaced by slender and short pins that got compared to a duck and were called duckpins. The duckpins had to be reset manually in rows and the one who completed the task successfully was said to have got his “ducks in a row”.

Another theory doing the rounds finds its origin the world of ducks and ducklings. It is a known fact that the mother duck generally manages her ducklings in straight lines to ensure their safe passage over water or land. In case any duckling would stray, the mother duck would get them back in line, thus originating in the idiom “Get Your Ducks in a Row”.

There are further references to carnival games, with one of the game being a shooting game with the targets being moving toy ducks all neatly arranged in a straight row on a conveyer belt system. Another game involved the use of plastic ducks made to float in a moving row over water-filled tracks while players attempted to choose one with a higher code that was hidden underneath and in effect fetched a better prize. The ducks being placed in an organized and consistent order made the task of knocking down the targets or selecting them more predictable and orderly, giving rise to the idiom, “Get Your Ducks in a Row”.