duck / duck tape / duct tape

Is it duct or duck? One might think that duct tape is the original, used for sealing heating and ventilating ducts, and that the duck version formed as an eggcorn. But if so, one would most likely be mistaken. Duck tape appears to be the original. It’s definitely older than duct tape, but there is some question as to whether it formed from duck tape or was independently coined.

Duck is a strong, untwilled linen or cotton fabric, similar to, but lighter than canvas. The word comes from the Dutch doeck, meaning linen cloth, and appears in English by the mid-17th century. A 1640 reference appears in John Entick’s 1766 History and Survey of London and Places Adjacent:

Duck hinderlands, middle good headlock.
(Hinderland is a type of cloth from Europe. I don’t know what middle good headlock means in this context.)

Duck tape appears in the 1940s. An ad in the New York Times of 14 June 1945 uses duck tape to refer to the cloth holding venetian blinds together:

In cream with cream tape or in white with duck tape.

The New York Times of 22 October 1945 includes the following in a list of surplus military equipment being auctioned. Like the venetian blind tape, this is probably not the sticky tape we are familiar with today, but rather non-adhesive cloth tape:

Cotton Duck Tape, 1” to 1 1/2” wide, 44,108 yds

Duct tape appears a few decades later, this time definitely of the adhesive variety with which we’re familiar today. Again from a New York Times ad of 1 November 1970:

DUCK TAPE
CARPET TAPE
BANKRUPTCY STOCK
14,000 Rolls 2"x60 yds silver & colored cloth tape packed 24 rolls to a case, asking $1.25 a roll.

The sticky duct tape could have come from the early non-sticky duck tape, a specialized application for the tape. Both are cloth tape. But it could also have developed separately.

(Sources: Oxford English Dictionary, 3rd Edition; Proquest Historical New York Times)

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