Green’s Dictionary of Slang

dead duck n.

[fig. use of SE + pvb ‘never waste powder on a dead duck’]
(orig. US)

1. a complete, irredeemable failure.

[US] in M. James Andrew Jackson (1937) 481: Clay [is] a dead political duck [DA].
[US] ‘Hurrah for Grant!’ Grant Songster 3: We’ve had a tailor at the White House / Who called himself ‘dead ducks’.
[US]J.K. Medbery Men and Mysteries of Wall Street 135: The ‘Lame Duck’ is a broker who has failed to meet his engagements, and a ‘Dead Duck’ is one who is absolutely bankrupt past all recovery.
[US]N.Y. Clipper n.p.: Long Branch is said to be a dead duck [...] [F&H].
Harrisburg Dly Indep. (PA) 26 May 4/3: Slang in baseball is a dead duck [...] ‘The Saturday Evening Post’ [...] demands that slang be skidooed on account of its ‘degredation of the sport’.
Lait & Mortimer N.Y.: Confidential 24: The hotel grills and roofs, forced to go straight to protect huge investments, long were dead ducks by now and so were the hotels.
[US]J. Steinbeck Sweet Thursday (1955) 232: It’s all I have. I’m a dead duck without it.
[US]J. Ellroy Brown’s Requiem 70: The whole scene is a long-gone dead duck.
[UK]Indep. 24 July 3: Turkey is a dead duck this summer.

2. (also dead bird) a hopeless person, one who has absolutely no chance.

[Aus]Bulletin (Sydney) 18 Aug. 44/1: I had to make them drunk to get across, and, by Heavens, I’m nearly a dead bird myself.
[US]E. Pyle Here Is Your War (1945) 103: Not to go branded a man as a coward. To go might make him a slight hero or a dead duck.
[US]W.R. Burnett Asphalt Jungle in Four Novels (1984) 268: Emmerich’s a dead duck. Take my word for it.
[US]E. Dundy Dud Avocado (1960) 13: You’re a dead duck now, I told myself.
[US]G. Cuomo Among Thieves 411: This inmate Orninski is a dead duck.
[UK]C. Dexter Last Seen Wearing in Second Morse Omnibus (1994) 450: Phillipson would be a dead duck then, and they’d have to appoint a new headmaster.
[US]S. King Stand (1990) 1015: If Tom won’t kill, he’s apt to be a dead duck.
[UK]Indep. Rev. 9 Sept. 1: He was happy to denounce Mr Hague off the record as a ‘dead duck’ who simply ‘hasn’t got it’.