It’s one of the surest ways to gauge who is a born-and-bred Minnesotan and who is not. Ask them what comes after “Duck, Duck …”
The correct response, as all true Minnesotans know, is Gray Duck. Goose? That’s a dead giveaway that someone’s an out-of-stater — plus, it’s plain-and-simple wrong, at least according to this Minnesota-born writer.
Just ask Vikings tight end Kyle Rudolph, who quickly learned he committed a grave mistake after shouting out “goose” in a 2017 touchdown celebration. (He is from Ohio.)
Mary Jacobson first learned about Duck, Duck, Gray Duck when her two children were in preschool. Although Jacobson has lived in the Twin Cities since her early 20s, the Wisconsin native still doesn’t understand why people call out Gray Duck.
“Is that supposed to be the loon, the state bird? Because a duck and a gray duck are still ducks,” she said. “To me it’s Duck, Duck, Goose. Those are two different fowls.”
Jacobson, along with several other readers, posed a question about the origins of Duck, Duck, Gray Duck to Curious Minnesota, the Star Tribune’s community reporting project that invites readers into the newsroom to ask questions about our state.
How Minnesota came to be the only state to call out Gray Duck is a bit of a mystery. “In all honesty: No one really knows,” said self-proclaimed Duck, Duck, Gray Duck expert Christopher Pollard.
Like the phrase Minnesota Nice, Gray Duck could have something to do with Minnesota’s Scandinavian roots.
Pollard said he discovered that two versions of the game existed in Sweden. One called “Anka Anka Gås,” which translates into “Duck, Duck Goose.” The other was “Anka Anka Grå Anka,” which translates into “Duck, Duck, Gray Duck.”
The theory goes that the Swedes who played the second version, “Grå Anka,” were the ones that settled in Minnesota.
But even Pollard admits that’s only a “happy and fun hypothesis.”
Part of the challenge is that children’s games like Duck, Duck, Gray Duck are passed down orally, making them hard to trace back in history.
“These things spread from child to child, from one adult to another. There is no fixed text,” said Anatoly Liberman, a University of Minnesota professor specializing in linguistics and folklore. For example, although many kids grew up playing “Mother, May I?” others played “Captain, May I?”
The word-of-mouth spread usually leads to “countless variances” of most children’s games, Liberman said, because “everyone is more or less able to vary these things and to add new versions.”
What’s unusual is not Minnesota’s claim to Duck, Duck, Gray Duck, Liberman said, but how other parts of the country universally call the game Duck, Duck, Goose.
“It’s the uniformity that’s amazing, rather than the single exception,” he said. “It’s more amazing how little variation there is in the United States.”
But many Minnesotans argue there’s a good reason for calling out Gray Duck, instead of Goose: It makes for a better game.
In a 2014 viral BuzzFeed article, Katie Heaney, a Minnesota native and New York-based writer, goes to bat for Duck, Duck, Gray Duck, saying it involves more strategy than its counterpart.
That’s because the person who’s “it” can trick opponents by tapping someone on the head and starting with the sound, “Grrr.” But the person may choose to say “Green Duck” or “Great Duck,” instead of calling out the Gray Duck. It keeps everyone on their toes.
To Pollard, Gray Duck is more than just a game for Minnesotans.
“It’s a clear part of our identity,” he said. “Every state has its cherished qualities that people tend to defend, and one of the things here in Minnesota that we like to kindly defend and cherish is the Duck, Duck, Gray Duck game.”
Residents from other states, including Jacobson, continue to vigorously defend Duck, Duck, Goose.
But Pollard said there’s no need for a feud: “Our belief of course is that both are good; it’s just that Duck, Duck, Gray Duck is a lot better.”
Austen Macalus is a University of Minnesota student on assignment for the Star Tribune.
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