Ducks swim?

U 12.756-7: − Could you make a hole in another pint?

− Could a swim duck? says I.

In its traditional form “Will a duck swim?” this is one of the oldest of many popular jocular affirmative questions like “Is the Pope Catholic?” A detailed study of these “sarcastic interrogations” by Charles Clay Doyle provides the necessary background for Joyce’s version of the phrase.1

The OED informs us that “does (or will, would) a duck swim? is “a colloquial phrase of enthusiastic acceptance or confirmation”.

The expression can be traced back to the 17th century in one of the plays of Thomas Otway, The History and fall of Caius Marius, first performed in 1680:

Lavinia. Nay pr’ythee be not angry, Nurse, I meant No ill. Speak kindly, will my Marius come?

Nurse. Will he? will a Duck swim? (Act II, Scene 2)

As P. W. Joyce in English as we speak it in Ireland and other documentary evidence confirm, the phrase was particularly common in Ireland:

A person who is offered anything he is very willing to take, or asked to do anything he is anxious to do, often answers in this way:—'James, would you take a glass of punch?' or 'Tom, will you dance with my sister in the next round?' In either case the answer is, 'Would a duck swim?'

P.W. Joyce, English as we speak it in Ireland (1910), p. 13

The Lenehanesque variant the I-narrator in Cyclops uses is more difficult to trace. It does turn up though around the time when Ulysses was written:

NZ Truth (1921) 17 September, p. 1

It rarely found its way into print before the 1920s, but we do find it in this announcement:

− Can a swim duck? This mystery will be solved at Donlon and Schram’s dance Thursday evening in the new Mark building.

Amsterdam NY Evening Recorder (1912) 21 November: "Local Paragraphs"

The earliest example found so far, however, suggests that the phrase was already popular among New York comedians forty years earlier.

Harald Beck

New York Clipper (1880) 22 September


1 Charles Clay Doyle, “Archer Taylor Memorial Lecture 2006: Is the Pope still Catholic?: Historical Observations on Sarcastic Interrogatives”, Western Folklore 67, No. 1 (2008), pp. 11-15.

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