A bunch of kids sit in a circle. One kid, who is “it,” walks the circumference, tapping the seated kids one by one, saying “duck, duck,” and then tapping a kid and saying something other than “duck,” and that kid has to chase and tag “it” before “it” makes it back around the circle to sit in the newly opened space. What do you call this game?
You probably call it “duck, duck, goose.” Pretty much the whole country calls it “duck, duck, goose.” Last night, when Vikings tight end Kyle Rudolph caught a Case Keenum pass for a touchdown on Monday Night Football, most of the Vikings offense mimed playing this game in the end zone, and Jon Gruden called it “duck, duck, goose.”
Except—as I’m sure you quickly learned if you follow any Minnesotan on Twitter—the Vikings are the NFL team from the one part of the country that calls this game “duck, duck, gray duck.”
And they—okay, we, because I’m the guy doing the (Minnesotan voice) in Drew’s tweet—do not shut up about this whenever the subject comes up.
Yes, part of this is just dumb, meaningless regional pride. For us transplants especially it’s a cheap grab at a silly sense of “authenticity”—yes, I may be a Media Elite in New York City, where most of the other transplants also talk like Hugh Laurie doing his Non-Region-Specific American Accent, but I come from a real place, where we do things slightly differently then they do in other places.
But it honestly is a shared, strange moment in the life of most Minnesotans when they first learn that no one else in the country calls it this. It is not taught to us as Our Special Version of the game, it’s just...what the game is. Imagine if, growing up, the first time you met some kid from another state, he told you that, everywhere else in the world, they don’t call it “Simon Says,” they call it “Horatio’s Request.” And you are the weird one, apparently, for only knowing it as this other thing.
More then a century into the age of mass communication, it seems nearly impossible for these types of hyper-specific regionalisms to persist, but they do. That’s neat! (Every now and then you recapture that slightly uncanny feeling. I only just learned like last year that “budge” as a verb meaning “to cut in line” is a regionalism specific to Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Iowa. You guys really don’t say it?)
After well over a decade on the East Coast, I don’t cling to many regionalisms. I started saying “soda” instead of “pop” years ago. But “duck, duck, gray duck” is not just “water fountain” versus “bubbler” (which is what weird freaks in Milwaukee call water fountains, which we call “drinking fountains”). There’s actually an important distinction here. I truly believe that children in Minnesota have been playing a more fun version of this game for years.
“Duck, duck, goose” is boring. It relies on a simple binary: The kid you’re tapping is either “duck” or “goose.” The words aren’t phonetically similar, so basically as soon as the “it” kid begins forming that first consonant sound, you know what’s happening.
“Gray duck,” though, introduces nearly infinite variations. The first, most obvious one—the one all kids figure out right away to add some spice to the game—is to psych them out with a well-placed “green duck.” Soon you’re drawing out the “grrrr” as long as you can to keep the other kids guessing.
Then you add other little tricks. You give each kid a different color—“red duck, purple duck, orange duck, beige duck”—so that when you finally drop the “gray duck,” in the same flat tone, maybe the kid you’re tapping doesn’t notice for a second and you get a nice head start.
Eventually you’re throwing all sorts of modifiers in there, stretching yourself to come up with adjectives: “gross duck, great duck, grand duck.” Now it’s a word game, and not just a simple test of one’s ability to run slightly faster than another kid.
What do you even do in “duck, duck, goose?” Do you name other birds? Sounds like a fun game for birdwatchers, maybe.
Do your children a favor: Teach them “duck, duck, gray duck.”