What Is a Lame Duck? | Lame Duck Origins

(Last Updated On: May 24, 2022)

Alright for everyone who saw the title and said “well obviously it’s a duck that can’t walk;” just because you’re correct doesn’t mean you’re interesting. If that was the definition you were looking for though, your reading for the day is done we suppose. “Lame duck” is also something we often hear when it comes to political representatives leaving office, so where did the phrase actually come from? What is a lame duck?

 Presidents and Politicians

You will most often hear the term “lame duck” applied to American presidents after presidential elections conclude in November. It gets tossed around until the next president officially takes office the following January. Because new members of Congress similarly are elected in November and take office in January, “lame duck” applies to them as well–there’s just not as much media cut-through for Congresspeople. Unless they happen to be one of the handful of truly awful ones. You know the ones.

By definition these lame duck officers are named so because their days in office are numbered; because they’re on their way out their capabilities are quite limited. For starters, there’s just not a lot of time to get sweeping agenda items done (if you’re the president of the United States you had four or eight years anyway, a couple months isn’t going to be the make-or-break). Secondly, being on their way out with a successor already named, the influence of lame duck politicians is curbed as people already start moving on and getting ready for their new boss.

Lame Ducks Do Walk

Actually, some of them fly. Pretty big decisions can come out of the lame duck period. We’re going to keep using the US as an example. It was a lame duck Congress that tried to cover up Watergate. Remember the Iran-Contra Affair? If you don’t, it was a plot during the Reagan Administration where weapons were sold to Iran, and those funds were funneled to the Contras in Nicaragua. The Contras, by the way, were an American-funded right-wing rebel group accused of lots of human rights violations and the like. The long-short, Reagan sold weapons to Iran and used the money to meddle in Nicaraguan politics.

Anyway, Reagan and H.W. Bush claimed that they had no idea this was going on–despite many members of his administration being convicted for their involvement. Many of them actually plead guilty. Anyway, H.W. Bush was Reagan’s Vice President at the time, so he claimed ignorance with Reagan when he took office afterwards.

That changed when Bush lost to Bill Clinton. As H.W. Bush was on his way out in December 1992, he pardoned six convicted/indicted Contra planners. Similarly, Bill Clinton issued 140 pardons on his last day in office.  


When did it start?

The term “lame duck” dates back probably to the 18th century. More specifically, the London Stock Exchange, where a lame duck was a broker who had defaulted on their debt. For example when the Duchess of Devonshire lost a ton of money in stocks, Mary Berry wrote that the Duchess would be “posted up as a lame duck.” This was around 1791. The analogy to from stock broker to lame duck was pretty simple. Basically a heady investor who lost all their money wouldn’t be able to keep up with all the other ducklings milling about in the pond. 

Lame ducks wouldn’t become politicians until the 19th century. Our first recorded use dates back to an 1863 edition of the Congressional Globe: “In no event .. could it [sc. the Court of Claims] be justly obnoxious to the charge of being a receptacle of ‘lame ducks’ or broken down politicians.” It was levied against Calvin Coolidge, as it was speculated that he would be facing a Senate of the opposing party–thus throwing a wrench into his presidential influence.

Speaking of lame ducks, it’d be pretty lame if you couldn’t tell the difference between a duck and a plantain, no?



About Kyler 728 Articles
Kyler is a content writer at Sporcle living in Seattle, and is currently studying at the University of Washington School of Law. He's been writing for Sporcle since 2019; sometimes the blog is an excellent platform to answer random personal questions he has about the world. Most of his free time is spent drinking black coffee like water.