Where does the children’s game duck, duck, goose come from? The answer involves Swedish immigrants, imaginative children around the globe, and a rainbow of aquatic birds.
Duck, duck, goose is a popular children’s game in the United States that you’ve likely played many times. But here’s a refresher on how it’s done:
To play duck, duck, goose, players sit on the ground in a circle. One player, who we will call the “runner,” walks around the outside of the circle, tapping each participant’s head while saying the word “duck.” At some point, the runner says “goose” as he or she taps a target player, and then the “goose” must chase the runner around the circle until the runner reaches the “goose’s” former seat and takes his or her place.
Why “duck” and “goose”? A goose is much more likely to chase you down if you bonk it on the head.
But just try telling that to a Minnesotan. In Minnesota, “duck, duck, gray duck” is the game of choice. Besides calling the target a gray duck instead of a goose, the person who is “it” also adds colors to each duck in the circle. “Red duck, purple duck, blue duck, grrrrr . . . een duck!” he or she might say, until finally naming the gray duck.
This game was introduced by Swedish immigrants who put down roots in the United States in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. During this time, about 1.3 million Swedes relocated to America, primarily settling in the Midwest along with other Scandinavian immigrants. The Swedish were driven by population growth, poverty, and religious repression and attracted to America by greater economic opportunity and political freedom. Along with them, they brought various traditions that have influenced American culture.
Minnesota is the only state that plays the “gray duck” way in the United States, but both versions came from Sweden. The Swedish name for the game that immigrants brought to Minnesota was anka-anka-grå-anka, “duck-duck-gray duck.” Swedish immigrants who arrived in other states brought with them a variant called anka-anka-gås, or “duck-duck-goose.”
It’s unclear exactly why duck, duck, goose gained so much traction in 49 of the 50 states in America. Children’s games are often passed down orally, which makes it hard to pin down the exact historical origins, and they are frequently changed in imaginative ways by different groups of children as they pass them along.
Interestingly, children’s games are strikingly similar around the world, and duck, duck, goose is no exception.
For example, a book detailing children’s games in England, Scotland, and Ireland in the late 1800s described a game called “kiss in the ring” that involved one player walking around the other players sitting in a ring and tapping each one on the head with a handkerchief, saying “Not you, not you, not you” until reaching the desired target—“But you!”—and the chase would commence.
A game in India called rumaal chor has one player, the “thief,” run around a seated circle of participants who extend their arms behind them. The thief drops a handkerchief along the way and whoever grabs it must jump up and catch the thief before he or she sits down.
In Chile, children play corre, corre la guaraca by sitting in a circle with their eyes closed as one child runs around the outside with a handkerchief. Participants are bopped on the head if they attempt to look around. The runner must place the handkerchief on one child’s back to mark the child as the guaraca (which is a nonsense word) without him or her noticing, then run a full circle and sit down before the guaraca notices and tags the runner.
In some versions of the game, the participants imagine that whoever is “it” is contagious with some kind of disease, and other participants want to avoid their touch so they don’t get “sick.” Players in Italy avoid the runner like the plague, those in Madagascar are afraid of leprosy, and participants in Spain flee from fleas.
The global popularity of similar children’s games goes to show that there is not necessarily one “true” source of a particular game. Any game may emerge in similar forms in different places as children create new ways to play together.
Adams, Cecil. “How Did Minnesota Diverge Linguistically from ‘Duck Duck Goose’ to ‘Duck Duck Gray Duck’?” December 6, 2017. Connect Savannah. https://www.connectsavannah.com/savannah/how-did-minnesota-diverge-linguistically-from-duck-duck-goose-to-duck-duck-gray-duck/Content?oid=6476780
Blanck, Dag. “Swedish Immigration to North America. Fall 2009. Swenson Swedish Immigration Center. Augustana College. https://www.augustana.edu/swenson/academic/history#:~:text=After%20the%20Civil%20War%2C%20the,Kansas%2C%20Wisconsin%2C%20and%20Nebraska.
“Children’s Games across the World Have Striking Similarities.” November 28, 2018. English Language Centres. https://www.ecenglish.com/en/social/blog/brighton/2018/11/28/childrens-games-change-across-world#:~:text=In%20England%20we%20would%20play,game%3B%20Duck%2C%20Duck%20Goose.&text=In%20the%20U.K%20children%20play,saying%20’duck’%20each%20time.
Gomme, Alice Bertha. The Traditional Games of England, Scotland and Ireland: With Tunes, Singing Rhymes and Methods of Playing According to the Variants Extant and Recorded in Different Parts of the Kingdom. (London: Nutt, 1894–1989), pp. 308–309. The Internet Archive.
Macalus, Austin. Why Are Minnesotans the Only Ones to Play Duck, Duck, Gray Duck? April 26, 2019. Star Tribune. https://www.startribune.com/why-do-minnesotans-play-duck-duck-gray-duck-instead-of-duck-duck-goose/502474351/?fbclid=IwAR0yLQ8mScKdrg4C9xh-wu9QTRfDLPkFCRp_4GILp4SbxtaJJmX6dcOjcBw&refresh=true.
Strickler, Jeff. “The Game is Duck, Duck, Gray Duck. Or Is It?” March 26, 2014. Star Tribune. https://www.startribune.com/the-game-is-duck-duck-gray-duck-or-is-it/252303671/?refresh=true.