Old Staffordshire saying: Fetch a duck off water

Heard an interesting old phrase used in natural speech today, by an elderly man remembering a girl he once knew: she’d “fetch a duck off water”. The Internet has hardly heard of it and its possible variants, and Google Books hasn’t heard of it. My source used it in the context of remembering a Hartshill (Stoke-on-Trent) childhood in the 1940s, and used it naturally to refer to someone so ugly that they’d “fetch a duck off water”. Or possibly I was mis-hearing, and he said she was ugly but had eyes that would “fetch a duck off water”.

Online I found a memory by Ian Clayton who remembers of his grandmother that…

“She met and fell in love with my Granddad [a man originally a miner from Staffordshire, the “rural Midlands” north of Wolverhampton] on a bus near Tadcaster after he had said to her “You have got eyes that could fetch the ducks off the water.”

I then did some further online research and found…

Manchester:

Nick Allen (raised in Manchester) remembers of his grandmother…

“As me granny would say “he could charm a duck out of water and money from a miser”

I’ve only found one use in old literature: The Sorcery Shop, an impossible romance (1906), a utopian political romance novel in the English tradition of William Morris…

“She has an eye that would charm a duck off the water”

The author was Robert Blatchford, who after 1890 was based in Manchester.

East Midlands:

An online source from someone living in Nottingham uses it to mean that: someone’s eyes were so attractive that they’d “fetch a duck off water”…

“Eyes to fetch a duck off water, and she does”

And there’s an oral history account in the BBC wartime memories archive in which “fetch a duck off water” is used by someone from Leicester…

“I noticed what beautiful eyes she had, large and dark brown, they spoke volumes. I always said ‘They would fetch a duck off water’.”

Yorkshire and general:

There’s also a recent review of a folk LP by Bob Pegg originally of Leeds and later for a long time in Yorkshire, that uses…

“singing, guaranteed to charm the ducks off the water”

P.R. Wilson’s Thesaurus of Traditional English Metaphors (1993) does record something like it, but only in Yorkshire…

“It would charm the ducks off the water” (West Yorkshire)

An earlier book Modern proverbs and proverbial sayings (1989) records the same phrase in a newspaper from 1956, and this may be where the 1993 Thesaurus had it from. That exact phrase has since been used in three pulp historical romance novels, possibly all by the same person writing under pseudonyms, and again I’d suspect the author(s) had it from one of these book collections.

There’s no use of “charm the ducks off water” online either, other than one lone British review of a Turkish holiday, said by a young woman of the charm of the young Turkish waiters in the hotel.

There’s also a mention of a similar phrase in the pulp Harlequin romance No Way Out (1980) by Jane Donnelly…

“You know what they say about charming a duck off water”

It’s also used in a Christian book, Spiritual Arts (2009) by Jill Briscoe. It doesn’t say where the author grew up in, but there’s enough to know it was England during the Second World War. She uses it as…

“smiles that would charm a duck off water”

So it seems to have been used from Staffordshire above Wolverhampton, up through North Staffordshire to Manchester, and across into the East Midlands in Nottingham and Leicester. Possibly also in Yorkshire, although that may rest on a single newspaper usage that was recorded in two collections of sayings.

Anyway, it seems to have almost died out now, so I’m just “rescuing” it for the Web 🙂 Maybe a few people using it again will start a revival.

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