This idiom means organizing your tasks and schedule so you’re ready for the next step. It became known in the 1980s as a management exhortation to staff, but is now a cliché.
The idiom reminds me of a wall decoration that used to be popular: a set of three painted plaster ducks marching in a neat diagonal line up the wall. It’s been a lot of years since I’ve seen such a set.
There are a number of theories about the source of the phrase. The most obvious is that it came from observing a mother duck leading her ducklings, very neat and orderly, in a straight line behind her.
The most popular theory suggests that “ducks in a row” came from the sport of bowling. Early bowling pins used to be shorter and thicker than modern pins, which led to the nickname “ducks.” These duck pins would be manually put back into place between bowling rounds. Therefore, having one’s ducks in a row would be a metaphor for having the bowling pins organized and properly placed before sending the next ball down the lane.
Another theory claims that it derives from a popular carnival game which involves the player using a small caliber rifle or air gun to knock down moving targets. Quite often these targets are in the shape of ducks, and a conveyor belt system makes sure the duck targets are aligned in a consistent row. Similarly, it may come from wild fowling, in which to get ducks in a row meant that one shot could kill several birds at once.
Other sources suggest the phrase comes from the game of pool, when a number of balls, called “sitting ducks,” line up neatly near pockets and can be tapped in one after another.
The expression may have come from the natural flight formation of ducks. The most efficient arrangement is a V-formation behind the leader, which allows each duck to take advantage of reduced wind resistance. Geese do the same thing. Having all of one’s metaphorical ducks in a row would be just as efficient and logical as flying in such an organized formation.
Currently, the earliest known example of the phrase in print is: “In the meantime the Democrats are getting their ducks in a row, and their ticket is promised to be very strong.”
The Plaindealer, 15 Nov. 1889.
The theories are interesting but haven’t been proven. Since humans domesticated ducks thousands of years ago, my guess would be that the phrase arose simply from observation of how a mother duck takes her brood from nest to water with her ducklings waddling in a line behind her. Neat. Organized. Obviously to be emulated!