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Caution - Exploding Ducks

Sunday 18 July, 2004, 04:49 PM

While reading through the Fahrenheit 911 Facts page that Philip Haack recently linked to, I came across this quote:

"And now they're hoist on their own canard." Maureen Dowd, "We're Not Happy Campers," The New York Times, September 11, 2003.

I've been trying to work out whether that's a subtle joke or just a mistake, and in doing so, it struck me that while I was pretty sure that it's a petard, rather than a canard (French for 'duck') that people are traditionally hoist on, I had no idea what a petard is.

So I did what anyone with an Internet connection would do at that point and got Google to do my research for me. Somewhat predictably, as I discovered here, this expression was popularised by Shakespeare. Here's the original quote, which is from Hamlet:

For 'tis the sport to have the enginer
Hoist with his owne petar

The word 'petard' (or 'petar' as it was spelled in Shakespeare's day) has its origins in a French word meaning, depending on context, either fizzle or fart. The word was appropriated by the English language, but since we have more words than the French, (and more than enough pertaining to flatulence) we pushed the word into service for a more specific meaning: a small bomb. (And in this context, 'enginer' appears to mean a sapper - the person planting the bomb.)

As far as I can tell, the word has since fallen into disuse except for its use in this specific idiom of being hoist upon one's own. So while being hoist on your own petard technically means being flung into the air by your own bomb, the phrase is typically use figuratively. (Indeed, I was well aware of the phrase's figurative meaning despite not knowing what one of the words meant until just now.)

So being hoist on your own canard presumably means duck-powered aviation.

Of course 'canard' has other meanings - the English language also stole that word from the French, once again using it to mean something different. Indeed, there is a precedent for this twist of the phrase, based around 'canard' in the sense of a fabricated story. For my money, I don't really think it works all that well as a gag - how exactly would you be 'hoist' by such a thing? It requires you to accept the figurative meaning of 'hoist' as used in the original quote even though the image the quote conjures up is destroyed by this substitution, so I just end up feeling it doesn't really work.

By contrast, it's quite easy to see how one might be 'hoist' by an explosive charge, or even by the other English meaning of 'canard' - a small forward-mounted wing-like control surface, or an aircraft employing such a surface. But personally, I prefer the cartoon-like image of being hoist by an exploding duck, so I'm going to assume that's what Maureen Dowd meant.

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