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Duck is defined as:

a batsman's score of nought.

How did "Duck", mysteriously, come to mean a score of nought?

Here is the earliest reference in OED from 1868:

1868 St. Paul's Mag. in Daily News 24 Aug. You see..that his fear of a ‘duck’—as by a pardonable contraction from duck-egg a nought is called in cricket-play—outweighs all other earthly considerations.

OED has a separate entry for "duck's egg" with a reference to 1863

1863 C. Reade Very Hard Cash vii, Now you and I, at Lord's the other day..achieved..the British duck's-egg.

A NYT reference from 1859 antedates references in OED to "duck-egg" as well.

He is the secretary of the Montreal Club, and was the means of getting the Eleven out, so of course he could not be sent home with a duck's egg."

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    0 → eggduck eggduck. Jun 11, 2017 at 15:31
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    Did you try looking this up in a dictionary? What was inadequate to you about the information given there? Your definition appears to come from a dictionary lookup (at least it is identical to the ODO definition), so I’m guessing you did. But that has the etymology right underneath it, giving you your answer… Jun 11, 2017 at 15:32
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    I'm more familiar in the US with gooseegg than duck egg as a reference to zero. Which may be why duck is a cricket term, but not current in US English. Jun 11, 2017 at 18:21
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    @RaceYouAnytime - the question is interesting, and you did the right thing in adding the required preliminary research a new used may have difficulty in finding. Unluckily there are users who are prejudiced against etymological questions, and are unable to appreciate any effort in that respect. english.meta.stackexchange.com/questions/7853/…
    – user66974
    Jun 12, 2017 at 11:57
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    I liked the edit, and upvoted it. The question should be left open, so visitors can read interpretations, answers, discoveries. Not everyone finds etymological questions a waste of time. @Clare isn't it better that this site provides an answer rather than redirecting users to different sites? I did not know about goose eggs or duck eggs referring to scores, but once it's pointed out it seems pretty straightforward. A brief history is all that was needed, maybe in a wiki-community post. I'd be happy to contribute, I stopped caring about rep. Anonymous DVs is a different issue.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Jun 12, 2017 at 12:23

2 Answers 2

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The earliest match for duck's egg in the sense of a mark of zero that I've been able to find is from a letter to the editor of the [London] Morning Advertiser (August 28, 1848) [combined snippets, paywall blocked]:

...to be the Miss Lydia filly by Don John, who was backed for a fortune to win the Oaks, and again by a few, rather heavily, for the Goodwood Cup, but here she was absolutely friendless. Mr. YVrather [?], her proprietor, was fined for the nondeclaration of colour, which, however, was no apology for the omission of the name on the card, as there had been no declaration of forfeit, and I must again anathematize the return lists, which get worse and worse each day, winding up with a start of twenty for the race, in lieu of ten, and put a duck's egg, alias 0, to Canezou amongst others, who were quietly reposing in their stables. Such awful blundering is mischievous, disgraceful, and perfectly unpardonable; and if they cannot find a printer in the North who knows his business, let them send to the South, they do for their judge and starter.

This instance, besides being eleven years earlier than the one cited by the OP from the New York Times on September 28, 1859, is also of interest because it involves horse racing rather than cricket. This suggests either that the letter writer was applying an expression from cricket to the track or that the usage originated outside cricket and migrated there subsequently.

The Wikipedia entry for cricket indicates that it dates to the sixteenth century, meaning that the sport emerged in England hundreds of years before the earliest instance (so far) of the slang term "duck's egg" appeared.

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work still in progress...

Apparently an English schoolboy slang term, a duck's egg was probably used to refer to a score of nought because it was bigger than that of a hen. Its usage became common from the mid 1850's and was originally used only in cricket:

  • These days the expression can be used in almost any game that involves a score of some sort but originally — back in Victorian times — it related solely to cricket. It seems to have been English public-school slang of the 1850s to call a score of nought against a player’s name a duck’s egg — presumably a duck rather than a chicken because a duck’s egg is bigger and more prominent.

The expression was fairly soon shortened to "duck":

  • It began to appear in print in the early 1860s and soon people shortened it just to duck. The first known example of that form appeared in the Daily News in August 1868: “You see ... that his fear of a ‘duck’ — as by a pardonable contraction from duck-egg a nought is called in cricket-play — outweighs all other earthly considerations.” A batsman who was dismissed without scoring was said to be out for a duck.

As noted, the AmE equivalent is goose egg:

  • Americans briefly knew of duck’s eggs in the 1860s, but prefer now to speak of goose eggs in much the same sense, a slang term that is almost exactly contemporary with the cricket one.

(World Wide Words)

The same assumption is supported also by the following source:

  • “Duck” as slang for scoring no hits (or meaning a player who scores no hits) originated in cricket in the mid-19th century, but is now used in other sports as well. “Duck” in this sense is short for “duck’s egg,” meaning the zero placed beside the player’s name in scoring sheets.

  • It first appeared in schoolboy slang in Britain, where it is also used to mean “nothing” in a general sense. To finally score after a time at “duck” in cricket is to “break one’s duck,” but if that doesn’t happen and the game concludes with a player not having scored even once, that hapless soul is said to be “out for a duck.”

(Word Detective)

As explained in the Historical Dictionaries and Historical Dictionary Research: duck meaning zero is one of a set on "esteemed synonyms" like nought, cipher, null and love.

  • In Present English, duck is a cricketing term in general use, not just by schoolboys.

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