Ever since the November elections in the U.S., the term “lame duck” has been used almost ad nauseum in political reporting. It is plausible that one could think that the political milieu is the only context for the use of this phrase. In fact, one would be wrong.
Did you know that originally the term “lame duck” referred to brokers who defaulted on their debt? This source notes that the term was coined in the 18th Century in the London Stock Exchange.
But in the U.S., “lame duck” refers primarily to the President, the U.S. Congress, or to any person or group that is still “in office,” but whose successors have not yet been seated.
The term has a vaguely (or, perhaps, not-so vaguely) negative connotation. It tends to mean someone who is less effectual than the “real” person (President, Congress member, and so on) who will be seated sometime in the future.
I was wondering about the overall usage of the term “lame duck.” I checked Google Trends, and the data seem to indicate that there is a cyclic nature to the use of the term. The graph below shows the occurrence of the term “lame duck” in Google News since 2004. (The letters on the graph refer to specific news stories.)
You can see the late-year increase in usage every election year. Also note that the 2004-2009 trends were fairly repetitive. But in 2010, hoo boy! I can see a large increase in occurrence of “lame duck” since the 2010 elections in the U.S.
Let’s take a closer look at the 2010 data:
“Lame duck” is definitely used more often in U.S. election years. It remains to be seen how high or low usage levels will be in 2011.
Now, back to the original usage in the financial world that I mentioned ab0ve. It’s interesting that there wasn’t much talk of “lame ducks” in the financial crisis. Does anyone know of any? Leave a citation in the Comments if you find one.
Update: I neglected to check Google’s new nGram. I clicked through to a couple of the earliest cited publications. None used the term in a political sense. My favorite quote (from The New York Review, and Athenium Magazine (p. 469): “He became a lame duck, which is ten times worse than a lame devil.” The Google nGram search results are presented here.