So far, one very bleeped catchphrase has emerged from this American Idol season: “Shit fire and save matches, fuck a duck and see what hatches,” which Steven Tyler has now unleashed twice during the week-plus that he’s officially been on Idol duty. But what on earth could it mean? Google turned up one useful result—a page from the 1988 thriller The Samurai Strategy—and a bunch of people who were wondering the same thing we were.
So we decided to hit up an expert. We asked Ben Zimmer, the “On Language” columnist for The New York Times Magazine and executive producer of The Visual Thesaurus, for a brief history of the couplet that’s probably already making the Fox censors dread Idol‘s switchover to live broadcasts.
“Fuck a duck” has various slang senses—often used as an interjection to express anger or astonishment, or as a handy alternative to “go to hell.” It’s quite versatile, appearing in such phrases as “he’d fuck a duck” (he’d fuck anything), “before you could fuck a duck,” and “he was mad enough to fuck a duck.” (These are mentioned in Jonathan Lighter’s Historical Dictionary of American Slang, as well as a book spun off from it, The F-Word, by Jesse Sheidlower.)
“Fuck a duck and see what hatches” might be idiosyncratic to Steven Tyler. The full couplet used by Tyler (and Aerosmith fans who repeat his bons mots—here’s an example from Usenet from 1994) begins “Shit fire and save matches,” which is an “I’ll be damned” type of exclamation that’s been around for a while. Here it is in the 1971 novel Joiner by James Whithead (set in segregation-era Mississippi).
So what I’m guessing happened here is that Tyler heard “Shit fire and save matches” and then created the rhyming couplet using “fuck a duck.” (The whole couplet has the flavor of “Let’s run it up the flagpole and see who salutes” and similar expressions.) If Tyler’s been using it in concerts for many years, then that might explain how it ended up in The Samurai Strategy, assuming the author was a fan—I doubt the transmission went the other way.
So the next time he drops that phrase—which, judging by the Idol producers’ devotion to originality this season, should be sometime around 8:03 p.m.—you’ll know about its origin.