The original ‘canard’

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This week’s Friday funny, brought to you as ever by author and journalist Eugene Byrne, considers Egide Norbert Cornelisse – a soldier, a man of letters and a practical joker – and an alleged experiment involving 20 ducks

The story

The Belgian soldier, administrator and man of letters Egide Norbert Cornelissen (1769-1849) grew tired of seeing so much nonsense reported in the newspapers. Being something of a practical joker, he announced to one of them that he had conducted an interesting scientific experiment.

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He had taken 20 ducks, killed one of them and cut it up, feathers and all, into very small morsels, which he had fed to the remaining 19. He then cut up another and in turn fed it to the rest, and so on, until only one duck remained, fattened up on 19 of its comrades.

Everyone believed the story for years afterwards, even though it was a complete hoax. The French for duck is ‘canard’ and that’s why the French, and sometimes even English-speakers, call a tall story, particularly one reported in the papers, a canard.

The truth

Cornelissen’s yarn almost certainly isn’t how hoaxes got to be called canards. It’s far more likely that it comes from an old French phrase vendre un canard à moitié – to ‘half-sell’ a duck – meaning to swindle. Sort of like the English saying about selling a pig in a poke.

It’s actually very difficult to untangle the bare facts of the Cornelissen story from all manner of embellishments which have been added down the years. Cornelissen was a member of the Belgian Royal Academy, and even their biography of him, written a couple of years after his death of cholera in 1849, doesn’t name the paper it was originally published in. It does, however, suggest that the original story was forgotten in Europe but returned again decades later via American newspapers.

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So in one version, Cornelissen was offering to sell his cannibal ducks at five times the normal price of ordinary ducks; this was because they were so delicious, but since you were, in effect, getting 20 ducks for the price of five it was still a bargain. Another version has a Napoleonic French general demanding that the military applications of these killer ducks be fully investigated with a view to their use as a weapon of war.