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I've started reading The Grapes of Wrath and I've run into some old-time phrases that I'm not sure of the meaning. I suppose these must date from the 1920s-1940s.

My dogs was pooped out.

From context I take it to mean his feet are tired from walking, but I'm curious as to the origin of this phrase.

He just done it for ducks

Does it mean he's doing it for show?

He wasn't puttin' on no dog.

No idea.

Is anyone familiar with these? Were they actually real phrases, or turns of phrase invented by Steinbeck?

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  • "Pooped (out)" and "putting on the dog" are real phrases. I don't know about "for ducks". – user14111 Feb 14 at 0:22
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    And dogs for feet is real slang — consider the shoe brand Hush Puppies whose motto was at one time (if I remember correctly) they quiet your barking dogs. – Peter Shor Feb 14 at 17:17
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    "For ducks" means just for fun. – David Anson Feb 14 at 17:32
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    @DavidAnson Do you have a source for that meaning of "for ducks", or just that it makes sense in context? Both bobble and I searched online for such a phrase and couldn't find any reference to it except in this same The Grapes of Wrath passage. – Rand al'Thor May 11 at 15:18
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    @DavidAnson, those are actually some of the sources I found while searching to see if this was a real idiom. However I dismissed them (and many more) as no relevant idiom was to be found. – bobble May 12 at 2:20
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(I'm doing these slightly out of order for reasons of convenience)

My dogs was pooped out.

"Dogs" was slang for "feet", originally from journalist T. A. Dorgan in 1913. "Pooped out" is an idiom meaning that someone/something is exhausted. Thus "My dogs was pooped out" is an informal way of saying "My feet are very tired".

He wasn't puttin' on no dog.

"Put on the dog" is an idiom meaning to to behave self-importantly/ostentatiously. Thus, "He wasn't puttin' on no dog" would mean "He wasn't acting self-important".

He just done it for ducks.

This one is trickier. I found a forum thread speculating on the same line, and they weren't sure:

From the context, it seems to mean that he just did it for a joke, or for fun. I can't recall having heard this expression before.

I can't find any other instance of its use, but I suspect Barque [the previous poster] is correct. Note that "ducks" rhymes with "yucks," which is slang for laughs.

The context from the book:

"Well, it makes you mad to hear a guy use big words. 'Course with a preacher it's all right because nobody would fool around with a preacher anyway. But this guy was funny. You didn't give a damn when he said a big word 'cause he just done it for ducks. He wasn't puttin' on no dog."

Or:

"Well, it makes you upset when someone uses big, fancy words. Of course it's okay with a preacher, because no one would dare mess with a preacher anyways. But this guy was funny. You didn't care when he used big, fancy words because he <just done it for ducks>. He wasn't acting self-important."

So yes, it makes sense in context that "just done it for ducks" would mean "just did it for fun".

(The most relevant duck-related idiom I found was in another forum post, which said that "just for ducks" meant "just for the hell of it" - but no one else knew it, and the post said it was from the 1970s which doesn't fit the timeline here.)

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Green's Dictionary of Slang gives three examples of "for ducks" before the Steinbeck one:

1900 F.V. Fisher Transformation of Job 13: ‘Gracious sakes, boy! what did you scare me for?’ [...] ‘Oh, just for ducks!’.

1913 J. London Valley of the Moon (1914) 520: I passed young Chavon [...] an’ – I don’t know why – just for ducks, I guess – I up an’ asked ’m if he thought the old man would lease the hundred an’ forty. [US]

1931 L. Steffens Autobiog. 276: ‘But what are you doing it for?’ ‘Oh, just for ducks.’ (context 1890s)

1939 J. Steinbeck Grapes of Wrath (1951) 12: He just done it for ducks. He wasn’t puttin’ on no dog. [US]

1962 E. Shepard Press Passes 219: They’re never happier than when pounding newsmen with their rifle butts, just for the ducks of it.

(Jonathan Lighter's Historical Dictionary of American Slang was Green's source for the 1931 and 1962 examples.)

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