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WORDS AND THEIR STORIES - Life Lessons from a Duck

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Now, the VOA Learning English program Words and Their Stories.

Many animals live in and around bodies of water. Take ducks, for example.

Ducks love the water. You can often see them floating happily on the surface of lakes, creeks, rivers and ponds.

Ducks swim effortlessly in all kinds of weather. Feathers protect them and other birds against the cold.

Ducks are great hunters. You can watch them diving down under the water for food, with their bottoms and webbed feet sticking up in the air. Ducks often live near water. This is where they mate and lay their eggs.

So, you could say that ducks really know water. In nature, they are water experts.

This brings us to our first expression: to take to something like a duck to water.

A male mallard duck reflects in the water of the Schliersee lake in Schliersee, southern Germany, on November 22, 2017.
A male mallard duck reflects in the water of the Schliersee lake in Schliersee, southern Germany, on November 22, 2017.

This means you are really good at something without even trying very hard. It is not a struggle for you at all. It is almost as if you were born to do it. And you really enjoy it.

For example, the first time the boy got on a bicycle he rode surprisingly well. You could say he took to biking like a duck to water.

When my friend told me that she wanted to start rock climbing, I worried about her. Rock climbing can be a difficult and even dangerous sport. But she has taken to rock climbing like a duck to water! Now, she's even competing in rock climbing competitions.

So that is our first duck and water idiom. The next one also describes something easy with 'duck' and 'water.'

When something is like water off a duck's back, it is no big deal. Whatever has happened has had no lasting effect on the duck or anyone else.

This expression comes from the fact that duck feathers are waterproof. They let water run off a duck's body. The feathers are perfectly designed because the birds spend so much time in the water.

A duck paddles on Loch Faskally, as autumn leaves are reflected in the water, in Pitlochry, Scotland October 29, 2014. (REUTERS/Russell Cheyne)
A duck paddles on Loch Faskally, as autumn leaves are reflected in the water, in Pitlochry, Scotland October 29, 2014. (REUTERS/Russell Cheyne)

In English, we use this saying when talking about something that has happened to someone, but the person doesn't seem to care. They are not bothered at all.

Now, the opposite of that expression is to ruffle someone's feathers. This means the person is really unhappy about something, just as ducks would be if you ruffled, or messed up, their waterproof feathers.

Take my friend Chuck, for example. You can say anything to him and he will not get upset. Nothing seems to ruffle his feathers. Everything just rolls off of his back.

A more formal way to say this is Chuck maintains his composure. If you lose your composure, you have let a situation upset you … or ruffle your feathers.

Now, let's hear two friends use some of these duck, water and feather expressions.

So, I've been hanging out with Hope more these days and I really like her.

I like Hope too! She's very easy-going.

Exactly. Things that would upset most people, just don't affect her at all. Most things are like water off a duck's back.

And that's such a great personality trait. I have a couple of friends whose feathers are easily ruffled. If the littlest thing goes wrong … they get very upset. Such a pain!

Oh, and another great thing about Hope, she'll try anything! Last weekend we went golfing together even though she'd never been before. And we had so much fun!

Isn't it difficult to golf with someone who's never golfed before?

Yeah, usually. But she took to the game like a duck to water. In fact, she made shots that took me months to learn!

Didn't that ruffle your feathers -- you know, the fact that she was better than you?

Not at all! For me, anything that happens on the golf course is like water off a duck's back. I just golf to spend time outdoors and get a little exercise.

Luke Donald, of England, hits from the fairway on the 10th hole during a practice round for the U.S. Open Championship golf tournament Wednesday, June 12, 2019, in Pebble Beach, Calif. (AP Photo/Matt York)
Luke Donald, of England, hits from the fairway on the 10th hole during a practice round for the U.S. Open Championship golf tournament Wednesday, June 12, 2019, in Pebble Beach, Calif. (AP Photo/Matt York)

And that brings us to the end of this Words and Their Stories.

Until next time … I'm Anna Matteo.

Like a duck takes to water, Like the flowers take to dew, Like a Latin takes to a Latin quarter, I take to you!

Anna Matteo wrote this story for VOA Learning English. George Grow was the editor. At the end of the program, Susannah McMorkle sings the 1941 song "I Take to You."

Words in This Story

born to (do something) phrasal verb having a natural talent or ability in a particular area.

instinct n. a natural ability

natural n. a person regarded as having an innate gift or talent for a particular task or activity.

bothered adj. feeling or showing agitation, worry, annoyance, etc.

oppositen. a word with a meaning that is completely different from the meaning of another word

ruffled affected by a loss of calmness or composure

messed up phrasal verb to make a mistake : to do something incorrectly

composure n. calmness especially of mind, manner, or appearance

rolls off his back idiomatic expression Not to let something bother you, or get the best of you.

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