Where Did the Phrase “Take a Gander” Come From?

S.Belsky asks: Where did the phrase “take a gander” come from? What the hell is a “gander” and why would I want to take it?

As you are no doubt aware, but for those who aren’t familiar with the phrase, “take a gander” is an expression meaning “take a look”, “get a peek”, “check it out”, etc.

It first popped up around the late 19th / early 20th century.  It is based on the “male goose” definition of “gander”.  “Gander”, meaning “male goose”, derives from the Old English “gandra”, which ultimately comes from the Proto-Indo-European root *ghans-, meaning “goose”.

So how did “take a gander”, essentially meaning “take a male goose”, come to mean “take a look”?  It is thought by some etymologists to have originated from “thieves’ slang”, much like “tip” as in “leave a tip”, but this time originating in the United States, rather than Brittan.

Whether thieves came up with it or not, this usage is referencing the fact that geese have long necks and like to poke their heads just about everywhere (literally, watch out if you’re around a gaggle of people friendly geese, particularly if you’re wearing a dress or just if you’re a guy and want to keep your sensitive bits unpoked).

So, basically, geese appear to be a bunch of rubberneckers. Thus, to “take a gander” meant to “stretch your neck and see”, as a long-necked goose would.

In the beginning of this sort of “look” definition of “gander”, the word was often used as a verb, rather than in the phrase “take a gander” where it is used in its noun form. But starting around 1914, this switched and over the next several decades the noun form became more common and today hearing someone use the verb form is fairly rare.

Bonus Facts:

  • Around the 17th century, “gander” also was used as a verb to mean “to wander foolishly/aimlessly”.
  • Most migratory geese will migrate at altitudes of many thousands of feet, but the real king of them all is the Bar-Headed goose, which has been observed flying as high as 30,000 feet (9144 meters) as the birds migrate over the Himalayas.  Another super-high flyer is Whooper Swans, which have been observed flying as high as 29,000 feet (8839 meters).
  • So those are the highest flying birds, what are the fastest?  That record belongs to the White-throated Needletail which is capable of flying in a straight path as fast as 105 mph (170 km/h).  The fastest diving bird is the Peregrine Falcon, which has been recorded diving at speeds up to 200 mph (322 km/h).
  • Many people often misuse the word “gaggle” thinking it refers to a group of geese in general.  In fact, it technically just means a group of geese on the ground.  When they are in the air, they are called a “skein”, when flying in a V, or a “plump”, when flying in a close-knit group.
  • Geese mate for life unless something happens to their chosen partner.  If so, they’ll eventually find another to take their place.
  • During nesting season, if you see just one goose hanging out, it’s probably a gander and if you tried to get close to where it’s at, it will probably attack you as it guards the nest.
  • Also during the nesting season, the adult geese lose the ability to fly as they molt and drop their wing feathers.  This coincides with the baby geese, called goslings, maturing to the point where they can fly (which takes 2-3 months).  This is also why geese so frequently choose to put their nests near a body of water; so they can still get away from many predators during the time period they can’t fly.  Around 6 weeks after molting, the adults can once again soar the sky.
  • Migrating geese often fly as much as 2000-3000 miles before their journey is done.  In the extreme with a very favorable wind and at high altitude, they can actually travel as much as 1500 miles in a 24 hour period, but generally migrate in a much more leisurely fashion, traveling slowly and taking frequent stops at certain seemingly designated areas.
  • Geese have been around on the Earth for approximately 10 million years.
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  • Dj

    That’s very interesting thanks for imparting the knowledge. I’d heard it a long time ago probably around one of my grandmothers and got a very vague sense of what it meant, but never dwelled further on it. Then one hilarious day my crackpot husband tries to use this figure of speech, along with something about a goose, to insinuate i’m a gold digger. I concluded and was extremely offended. Guess it makes him feel smart to use old terms no one cares about anymore. Wonder if divorce papers feel very smart as well? I’m the type of person to become severely depressed not being able to care for myself I don’t even like asking for help so i’m most certainly not a gold digger.

  • Max

    I’m afraid this article misses the point completely. Not doubting your research and I’m sure there is some truth to what you are saying. But the term actually comes from Cockney Rhyming Slang. Apple and Pairs – Stairs; Dog and Bone – Phone; Nanny Goat – Coat………. Ganders Beak – Peek. Also acceptable is Butchers Hook – Look. Now I feel I should add to this here (because every American film/tv show has got this wrong), In CRS you only say the first word. You do not go up the apple and pairs to answer the dog and bone, and get your nanny goat. You go up the apple, get the dog and grab your nanny. The amount of Cockney’s in american shows that are forced by script writers to say “Get your mince pies on that”…… Or “There’s gonna be Barney Rubble”….