Saturday, June 29, 2013

Duct tape/duck tape, one more time

Is it duck tape or duct tape, and which came first? Michael Quinion of World Wide Words has updated his page on the debate, adding new material and antedating the first unequivocal "duct tape" mention to 1957. (In my last go-round on the topic, in a 2010 Boston Globe column, my earliest cite was 1960.) He also links to new research on the history of duct tape, by a former Scotch tape marketing director, that details the development and naming of 20th-century tapes.

Johnson & Johnson's official story has been that
the original material was developed by the Permacel division of Johnson & Johnson in 1942 as a waterproof sealing tape for ammunition boxes in the US Army. ... Because the fabric backing was made from cotton duck and because it repelled moisture "like water off a duck’s back," it became known to soldiers as duck tape.
It's a good story, but none of us have been able to find a shred of evidence for it, despite the abundance of World War II-era documentation. In fact, "the tapes used by the US Army during the war for sealing ammunition cases and other uses were off-the-shelf brands, including Johnson & Johnson’s Jonflex and Utilitape," Quinion reports. And there's no sign that soldiers called these either duck tape or duct tape; those terms were popularized in the 1960s and '70s.

The issue has long been confused by the existence of early references to "duck tape" meaning cloth tape made of cotton duck, whether stickified for sealing or used for other purposes; during my search I unearthed several old ads for Venetian blinds with ladders made of this woven cloth "duck tape." But it's pretty clear now that both terms, the "logical" duct tape and the (now trademarked) Duck Tape, have reasonable -- and fairly recent -- claims to legitimacy.

14 comments:

Gregory Lee said...

But why do "duct tape" and "duck tape" sound the same?

Jan said...

Hey, Greg, you're the linguist here. I don't really think you need me (or anyone else) to tell you the answer.

Gregory Lee said...

I thought of posting a rule that would change [ktt] into [kt], thus "duct" comes to be "duck", but I was afraid that someone would point out that such a rule wouldn't really say why.

And I also started wondering whether [ktt] might instead be changing to [kkt], so they don't actually sound the same, after all. It's just that there is no good way to spell "duck" pronounced with a lengthened [k].

Gregory Lee said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Faldone said...

I would say that gemination is not, typically, a recognized feature of most dialects of English but then IANAL, so who am I to judge?

Faldone said...

BTW, English's lack of gemination as a standard feature could be used to argue both that the correct duct tape has degenerated to the common solecism duck tape and that the correct duck tape has been hyper-corrected to duct tape.

Gregory Lee said...

A change [kt t] to [kk t] is not a gemination -- it's a progressive place assimilation that happens to produce two like consonants. For comparison, here are two cases of regressive place assimilation producing like consonants, in common pronunciations: "practical" with [tt] and "Atkins" with [kk].

Progressive place assimilation is not common in English casual speech. "Hypnotize" with [pm] for [pn] is an instance.

Gregory Lee said...

Uh, looking back, I see that referring to the change as "gemination" is essentially my fault, since I said "duck" might be pronounced with a "lengthened [k]". I should have said "long [k]" or "double [k]", I guess.

Faldone said...

It's the T that's geminated in duct tape. It's a question of whether you're saying /dʌkteɪp/ or /dʌkt:eɪp/.

Gregory Lee said...

Let's try not to get hung up on terminology. Although I would call the double [t] in duct tape a "geminate t", since both "t"s are original, I would not call that "gemination", since that is when you start with a single consonant and wind up with it doubled. But if you want to call that "gemination", I don't care (now that I know what you mean).

John Cowan said...

For me there is no phonetic gemination, though I think of the phrase semantically as duct tape.

Gregory Lee said...

So, John, your pronunciation is [dʌktʰejp], non-geminate k and non-geminate t. Right?

Sue Dunham said...

Although duct is a common usage, it is completely illogical. This is the worst possible thing to use on ducts. It stretches and it melts.

Gregory Lee said...

So, Sue, you want us to use duck because it doesn't stretch and melt? I feel this is a quack recommendation.