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:

Brother Jonathan. – Our young friend over the water will teach his granny to milk ducks by and by. – "A man in Jefferson county (U.S.) has invented a machine for milking cows!" – What a "capital calf" he must be?

Exeter Flying Post (1833), 3 October p. 4

     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:

Not you in throth — go tache your mammy to milk ducks! I know more o' 'spoil five' than all the Frinchmen that ever was born. "Play!" said he to his fellow-gamesters.

Samuel Lover Rory O'More (1837), ch. 26 p. 235

     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:

Mr. Jenkins laughed derisively, and requested of [PC] 385 B to go out of that, and tell his mother he was no good. 385 B refused, in the most positive manner […] "Well, then," rejoined Mr. Jenkins, "go teach your amiable mother to milk ducks – take a turn at the mangle – get your head shaved – go polish your varnished head with some of Warren’s blacking [etc.]."

Freeman’s Journal  (1842), 26 September

     In “The Great Spollen Case” the expression also appears by chance in a policing context:

So also the smaller tribe of policemen, upon whom it was incumbent to find out and compare facts and connect them with some person or persons about the Dublin station: they were utterly inaccessible. "Teach your granddam to milk ducks," was about the civilest [response].

Dublin Evening Mail (1857), 17 August p. 2

     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.

Seòl do shean-mhathair lachanaidh a bhleaghan. [Teach your grandmother to milk ducks.] Latin. Delphinum natare doces, vel aquilam volare. (vol. 6, p. 259)

     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.

38. The one-eyed man is king in the land of the blind. Cleverness is a comparative quality.

39. The lamb teaching the ewe to graze. Go, teach your grandmother to milk ducks.

40. He who does great wrong will, swear a great oath. Show me a liar, 

William Spurrell Practical Lessons in Welsh (1888), p. 153

     Later examples demonstrate the currency of the saying amongst this wider audience:

He can teach others, but cannot use his own knowledge. It was a faddist who undertook to teach his grandmother how to milk ducks.

Photographic Times (1895), vol. 27, p. 223

     It was perhaps the strong Irish-American community that ensured that the saying maintained a presence in the United States:

The notion of President Roosevelt teaching the Senate how to construct bills, was like teaching his grandmother to milk ducks.

Sunday Star (Washington, D.C.) (1912), 11 February (magazine section) p. 18

     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.

John Simpson

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1 Robert Dent: Colloquial Language in Ulysses: A Reference Tool (1994), p. 133.
2 See other evidence of Joyce’s linguistic interest in ducks in Could a swim duck?