What Does Water Off a Duck’s Back Mean?

Like Water Off a Duck’s Back Meaning

Definition: Without any effect.

People often use this to describe insults or other negative actions that others do against them that do not harm them. A common collocation is to roll off someone like water off a duck’s back.

Origin of Water Off a Duck’s Back

This expression originated in the 1800s. It comes from the literal characteristic that duck feathers have for resisting water.

If you have ever observed a duck, you may have noticed that no matter how often the duck dives under the water, it comes back up looking quite dry. This is because duck feathers are coated in special oil that repels water. For that reason, water droplets quite literally roll off of ducks’ backs.

Early uses of this idiom are more literal. For example, one of the earliest found in print talks about a raincoat that keeps water off of people like water off a duck’s back.

Another example talks about how dirt washes off when using a specific cleaning product, just as water rolls off a duck.

However, other early uses include rude words or actions that don’t affect a person as well.

Examples of Water Off a Duck’s Back

water on a ducks backHere is an example of a teacher using the expression in a math class.

Teacher: John, where is your homework? This is the second time in a row you haven’t had it ready.

Student: Maybe if your class wasn’t so stupid, I would actually do the homework.

Teacher: You’re not going to hurt my feelings. Comments like those roll off of me like water off a duck’s back. I don’t care how you feel about the class. All I care about is that you do the homework.

roll off your back like a duckIn this example, two friends are discussing some rude gossip.

Monica: I can’t believe that Molly is telling everyone that I stole from her! It’s not true!

Janice: I know it’s not true, but there’s nothing we can do to stop her. I think the best thing to do is just ignore her.

Monica: That doesn’t seem fair. She shouldn’t be allowed to slander me!

Janice: I know. But if she sees that her comments don’t affect you, if they roll off you like water off a duck’s back, then she’ll leave you alone.

More Examples

This excerpt is from an article about a cruise.

  • The ups and downs of the stock market. The back-and-forth of the presidential election. Aboard Cunard Line’s newest ship, the Queen Victoria, in the southern Caribbean, cares like these are water off a duck’s back. In fact, except for the daily “programme” — this is a British ship — that announces the day’s activities, it’s almost possible to forget the date. –Denver Post

The second excerpt is from an article about a police deputy that works with teenagers.

  • “I think it’s really cool he patrols Rancho Santa Margarita Intermediate and makes sure it’s safe,” said John Sigala, 12, adding that Cranford has also helped him deal with teen issues. “For me and other short people, we get teased a lot. But to me it’s just like water off a duck’s back. But some kids don’t take it as well as others.” –OC Register

Summary

The phrase like water off a duck’s back usually describes an insult or criticism that does not hurt or otherwise negatively affect the person being insulted.

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