Milking ducks grandmother’s way
U 12.838: Mister Knowall. Teach your grandmother how to milk ducks.
Robert Dent and other commentators have offered partial histories of the derisive I-narrator's expression "Teach your grandmother to milk ducks" aimed at Bloom. Dent’s preferred parallel is the old saying "Teach your grandmother to grope ducks", where grope means “to handle (poultry) in order to find whether they have eggs”.1 Slote notes that Joyce’s form is a conflation of two proverbs, teaching your grandmother to grope ducks, and also teaching your grandmother to sup milk. The favoured form in standard modern English (recorded since the early eighteenth century) is, of course, teaching your grandmother to suck eggs.2
In all contexts the expression connotes wasting someone’s time by telling them how to do something they are already perfectly proficient at. The activity in which the “grandmother” is supposed to need instruction is typically one of a faintly comical nature. There is not a literary tradition of grandmothers groping ducks, or of sucking eggs, and certainly not of milking ducks.
As with other versions of the proverb, the word “grandmother” enters quite late. Earlier it is normally “grandame”, or “mammy”, or some similar term. The first evidence to date of the duck-milking expression comes from 1833, in a short, jokey news item:
But its appearance soon afterwards in Anglo-Irish novelist Samuel Lover’s Rory O’More suggests that the saying was already well known in Ireland:
Although it is found elsewhere – in Britain and in North America – the evidence for the saying comes predominantly from Ireland. The Freeman’s Journal of 26 September, 1842, records another early occurrence in one of its court reports:
In “The Great Spollen Case” the expression also appears by chance in a policing context:
Linguistic interest in the expression was being shown by the mid nineteenth century, as part of general investigations into national folklore and sayings. The Ulster Journal of Archaeology of 1858 regarded it as an Irish saying, and provided a translation into English as well as a loosely similar Late Latin proverb about teaching birds to fly and fish to swim.
The Irish phrase is repeated in Alexander Nicolson’s important Collection of Gaelic Proverbs and Familiar Phrases (1881, p. 211).
As the century continues, the saying finds a wider audience, but is still often regarded as an Irish, or more generally, as a Gaelic, proverb.
Later examples demonstrate the currency of the saying amongst this wider audience:
It was perhaps the strong Irish-American community that ensured that the saying maintained a presence in the United States:
It is clear from the mass of evidence available for the expression that it was not Joyce’s invention. In fact, the material available today suggests and then confirms that in Joyce’s day teaching one’s grandmother to milk ducks was generally regarded as a Hiberno-English phrase, though the curious expression was also used elsewhere in the English-speaking world.
Joyce's Allusions >