Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Why a Duck?

Words interest me.  I am particularly fond of words that morph into several apparently contradictory meanings.  When this happens there is almost always a good story behind them, and in the case of today's tale, one that wends its way through several different languages.

Consider the word Canard.

Literally it is the French word for duck.  So how did we end up with the following:

Canard - a falsehood.  Usually given a bit of pomposity as a "Base Canard".

Canard - a set of small wings on the nose of an aircraft, or generally as an aircraft that has such an atypical configuration.

The aerodynamic sense of the word goes back to the earliest days of powered flight.

Behold the wondrous 1906 Santos-Dumont 14-bis.  This pioneering aircraft "might" have been the first functional heavier than air vehicle.  The dispute between this and the 1903 Wright Flyer seems to be about equally based on Gallic pride and on whether use of launch assistance such as a catapult comprises cheating.

Santos-Dumont remarkably was a Brazilian engineer working in France.  The peculiar design of the craft reflects its origins - it has elements of box kites combined with an engine used on early speedboats. The pilot steered it with a system of wires adapted from a system used on clocks in church towers.  One set attached to the shoulders of his flight suit.

The testing for the 14-bis was all improvisational.  Santos-Dumont first tried simply suspending it from one of his lighter than air inventions, a balloon unimaginatively named "14".  Bis is a French word that means roughly "extra" or "twin".  Since balloon 14 had trouble handling the extra weight Santos-Dumont switched to the high tech expedient of just building a big zip line to run it down. He had a donkey pull the aircraft to the top for test runs.

Ultimately he was able to make a few brief powered flights, sufficient to earn several established aeronautic awards and prizes.  As to the reason that this and similar craft derived from it were referred to as "Canard", well it sure looked like a duck to the average Frenchman of 1906.

This tradition continued for generations.  A 1932 experimental canard equipped aircraft from Focke-Wulf was nicknamed Ente, the German word for duck.  And check out this 1945 craft:

Before going on to create the highly capable line of MiG fighters the Mikoyan-Gurevich factory was tinkering around with various designs including the MiG-8, nicknamed Utka, the Russian word for duck.

So Canard as a term for a duck shaped aircraft makes a bit of sense, even if more recent versions have strayed a bit from the very duck-like 14-bis.  And Canard as a term for falsehood?

That goes back a bit further.  It seems to come from a French saying first documented in the 1850s, but probably going back much further.  Vendre des canards a moitie' means "to half sell a duck"  This refers to a business deal in which the intent is to swindle.  In this it is something along the lines of "selling someone the Brooklyn Bridge", or to the similar market place frauds of selling a pig in a poke with the inevitable denouement of letting the cat out of the bag!

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