canard, or why [half] a duck*

Here’s the entry for canard in the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica:

“CANARD (the Fr[ench] for  ‘duck’), a sensational or extravagant story, a hoax or false report, especially one circulated by newspapers. This use of the word in France dates from the 17th century, and is supposed by Littré to have originated in the old expression, ‘vendre un canard à moitié’ (to half-sell a duck); as it is impossible to ‘half-sell a duck,’ the phrase came to signify to take in, or to cheat.”

While English has borrowed the French word, Spanish has not. The Velazquez® Spanish and English Dictionary translates English canard as ’embuste; noticia falsa, principalmente en un periódico.’ If we were to translate the old French expression vendre un canard à moitié into Spanish, we would have vender un pato a mitad, where mitad is at best half-recognizable as the cognate of French moitié. In Old Spanish, mitad was metad, which was closer in form as well as time to its Late Latin ancestor medietat-. That was based on Latin medium ‘middle,’ which is now Spanish medio; Late Latin mediatat- acquired its sense of ‘half’ from the fact that the midpoint of something like a line segment divides the segment into two equal halves.

It will probably surprise most native English speakers that we’ve borrowed French moitié. Transformed to the uncommon moiety, the word means ‘one of two equal parts; a half; as, a moiety of an estate, of goods, or of profits; the moiety of a jury, or of a nation.’ Anthropologists have adopted moiety as a technical term for ‘either of two complementary tribal subgroups.’ There are tribes, for example, where by tradition a man in one moiety had to choose a wife from the other, presumably as a way to ensure genetic diversity and avoid inbreeding.

© 2011 Steven Schwartzman


* The title is a reference to the Marx brothers routine in The Cocoanuts in which the word viaduct gets misunderstood as why a duck.


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©2011–2016 Steven Schwartzman
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