There's a Duck in My Duct!

In 2003 Chemical & Engineering News and the New York Times Magazine devoted space to discussions of duck tape and duct tape.

Their explanations regarding the products lacked the expertise of this publication, which is devoted to the converting industry that makes such pressure-sensitive tapes. This column will rectify that oversight by elaborating on the differences between the products.

Why does a problem exist about the two tapes? Professor Henry Higgins of My Fair Lady explained it very succinctly when he sang “The Rain in Spain.” People who use the English language — especially Americans — often fail to speak distinctly. The correct pronunciation for duck is d×uk. For duct, it is d×ukt. The only difference is the addition of the sound for the letter t on the end of duct. Adding the word tape to form the complete name of the item compounds the usual sloppy pronunciation of the two words. Running the two words together produces identical sounds unless a speaker is extremely careful to add the final sound for the letter t to the end of duct. Although this column usually does not address issues of this sort, the first lesson a reader might want to take from this month's discussion is to speak distinctly.

Language study is interesting for various reasons. One is that the words in one language are often difficult to translate exactly into another language. For our purpose, perhaps we can borrow an idea from Professor Higgins and examine the Spanish terms for the two tapes under consideration. Duck tape might be pato cinta, and duct tape might be conducto cinta. Say these two Spanish phrases rapidly while running the two words together.

The two terms sound completely different and therefore would be extremely difficult to confuse. We only can surmise, therefore, that Spaniards and many other non-English-speaking people have no problem distinguishing between the two different tapes.

Does all this really matter? Probably not! Duck tape generally is a clear plastic film using an equally clear polyacrylate pressure-sensitive adhesive. It has use in packaging and protective applications. Duct tape frequently is a gray cloth-like material with a very aggressive rubber-based p-s backing. It finds use for many miscellaneous applications.

Both types of tape are common staples in stores carrying groceries, hardware, office supplies, home improvement items, etc.

The important point is that a tape user must know what properties of adhesion, cohesion, tack, aging, etc., are necessary for the application intended. Then the user must select the tape that will meet these requirements, regardless of whether a manufacturer calls it duck tape or duct tape. This is true for any p-s tape application.

Honey, I Shrunk the Kids was the title of a movie a few years ago. “Waiter, there's a fly in my soup” was the caption of an old cartoon. A new saying that is appropriate for the subject under discussion here might be, “Honey, there's a duck in my duct.” The following may shed some light on whether the correct name is duck tape or duct tape.

Suppose you found a duck in your duct. You would first shout, “Honey, there's a duck in my duct.” Realizing that you had exhausted your supply of duct tape in the assembly of the ducting material, you would place a quantity of duck tape with the adhesive side up inside the duct in an attempt to capture the animal for removal by an easy and humane method.

Having solved this difficulty in cleaning your duct, you have a new problem. You must now face the proverbial question: Which came first — the duck or the egg? Perhaps that can be the subject of a future column.


David J. Bentley Jr. is a recognized industry expert in polymers, laminations, and coatings with more than 30 years of experience in R&D and technical service. Contact him at dbentley@unm.edu

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