duck tape?

Jonathan Lighter wuxxmupp2000 at YAHOO.COM
Sun Jul 24 01:58:26 UTC 2005

Now I'm starting to believe that "duck tape / duct tape" was originally sold only in nine-yard rolls.

*That* would make sense.


"Baker, John" <JMB at STRADLEY.COM> wrote:
---------------------- Information from the mail header -----------------------
Sender: American Dialect Society
Poster: "Baker, John"
Subject: Re: duck tape?

Apparently the most detailed work done on this so far is in
Safire's 3/2/2003 On Language article for the Times, which included the
following discussion:

<called duct tape for two reasons. First, duct -- from the Latin ducere,
"to lead" -- is used in aquaduct, "to conduct water"; viaduct, "to
conduct cars or trains along the way over a valley or gorge" (Why a no
chicken?); and air-conditioning duct, "to conduct cool air." The wide
waterproof tape is used to patch, or to hold together sections of, these
conductors of cooled or heated air.

Pursuant to this theory, the second reason that some speakers spell it
duck tape is that the ending of duct and the beginning of tape elide and
sound more like a k than a t.

People entranced with the logic of the preceding two paragraphs are
mistaken. The original name of the cloth-backed, waterproof adhesive
product was duck tape, developed for the United States Army by the
Permacel division of Johnson & Johnson to keep moisture out of
ammunition cases. The earliest civilian use I can find is in an
advertisement by Gimbels department store in June 1942 (antedating the
O.E.D. entry by three decades -- nobody but nobody beats this column),
which substitutes our product for the "ladder tape" that usually holds
together Venetian blinds. For $2.99, Gimbels -- now defunct -- would
provide blinds "in cream with cream tape or in white with duck tape."

Interestingly, at the bottom of the ad that ran six months after Pearl
Harbor is this wartime pitch: "Get them for the dimout!" Dimouts were
near-blackouts to protect cities in case of air raids; the tape was
advertised for defense against World War II bombing raids, just as it is
promoted on the eve of gulf war II for protection against gas or germ

In 1945, a government surplus property ad in The Times offered 44,108
yards of "cotton duck tape." The first citation I can find for the
alternative spelling is in 1970, when the Larry Plotnik Company of
Chelsea, Mass., went bust and had to unload 14,000 rolls of what it
advertised as duct tape. Three years later, The Times reported that to
combat the infiltration of cold air, a contractor placed "duct tape -- a
fiber tape used to seal the joints in heating ducts -- over the

As the t spelling stuck, the Henkel Consumer Adhesives Company
registered the name "Duck brand duct tape," now the No. 1 brand in the
United States. Even prom outfits are made from it.>>

However, Safire's analysis was challenged a few days later by
Jan Freeman, writing in the Boston Globe on 3/9/2003:

<sought support for the duck tape tale, but the pickings were slim. He
found a 1942 ad for Venetian blinds "in white with duck tape," but that
duck tape wouldn't be sticky tape: It's merely cotton duck woven into
the "ladder tapes" that form the scaffolding for Venetian blinds. You
can still buy woven cotton tapes, among the sewing supplies, and blinds
are still available with decorative cloth tapes, no stickum included.

Besides, "cotton duck tape" isn't one of the ingredients for duct tape.
The cloth layer in duct tape doesn't start out as narrow strips-that is,
as "tape"-but as a wide piece of yardage: The tape is fabricated in huge
cylinders, then recut into user-friendly rolls. And anyway, how likely
is it that GIs-who may have taken shop class, but probably missed home
ec -would have nicknamed the stuff duck tape because of its hidden
fabric layer?

OK, so say they named it for the waterproof layer: It sheds water, it's
duck tape. But here the problem is lack of evidence. If duck tape was
common in the `40s, why are there no clear-cut examples of such use
before the 1970s, when both duck tape and duct tape appear in print?
Where are the letters from soldiers telling their parents, "My boots are
more duck tape than leather these days"? The war novels with daredevil
rescues made possible by duck tape?

Lack of proof isn't disproof, of course. The phrase "the full Monty" may
also date from World War II (as several of its proposed histories
suggest), but it didn't see print till 1985. Still, the prolific
slanguist Paul Dickson-whose latest edition of "War Slang" will be
published this summer by Brassey's-says he hasn't yet found a single
wartime duck tape.

Until he, or someone, does, I'll stay glued to the theory that duck tape
is a phonetic spelling of duct tape. In the absence of evidence, the
other explanations are-in the words of New York slang sleuth Barry
Popik-"quack etymologies." Unfortunately, given the reach of the
Internet and the appeal of a good story, we may well get stuck with the

I think Freeman must be right that the duck tape used with
Venetian blinds is probably not the duck/duct tape that we know, but
that doesn't address Safire's 1945 cite. Incidentally, I took a look at
the Washington Post archives. There are a number of relatively early
"duck tape" cites with Venetian blinds. The earliest of these is from
3/14/1948, an advertisement for metal Venetian blinds "Made of 2" metal
slats with ivory color duck tapes and enclosed metal head." The
earliest for "duct tape" is 9/17/1969 (a slight antedating), where a
display ad offers "DUCT TAPE" to "Seal up heat and Air Condition Ducts."

John Baker

-----Original Message-----
From: American Dialect Society [mailto:ADS-L at LISTSERV.UGA.EDU] On Behalf
Of Jonathan Lighter
Sent: Saturday, July 23, 2005 5:14 PM
Subject: Re: duck tape?

The relevant passage from :

"The closest we got to a consistent story [N.b. -- JL] was the
[sic--JL] Johnson and Johnson Permacel Division who made the stuff for
the U.S. Military during World War II. The original use was to keep the
moisture out of the ammunition cases. Because it was waterproof, people
referred to the tape as "Duck Tape." Also, the tape was made using
cotton duck [Aha! -- JL] - similar to what was used in their cloth
medical tapes. Military personnel quickly discovered that the tape was
very versatile and used it to fix their guns, jeeps, aircraft, etc.
After the war, the tape was used in the booming housing industry to
connect heating and air conditioning duct work together. Soon, the color
was changed from Army green to silver to match the ductwork and people
started to refer to duck tape as "Duct Tape." (By the way, "Duck Tape"
is now a registered trademark of Duck(r) brand (a division of Henkel
Consumer Adhesives) in Avon, Ohio."

"The closest we got to a consistent story...." How many times have we
had to put up with that kind of uncertainty in the etymology racket,
even with regard to relatively recent, widely known, and presumably
heavily documented commercial terms !


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