This is another of those "follow the links" days. I heard this on a Grammar Grater podcast.
According to the Oxford English Dictionary, in United States politics, a lame duck is "an office-holder who is not, or cannot be, re-elected." This includes politicians who lose their seats in an election, announce that they will retire at the end of their existing term, or-like U.S. presidents-are subject to term limits. In fact, the Twentieth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution is nicknamed the "Lame Duck Amendment." ...
According to Earle, the phrase came "across the pond" to the United States in the 18th century. Back then, the British used the term to refer to stock traders who couldn't pay their debts. Someone who - in the 18th century, on London's equivalent to Wall Street, "Exchange Alley" - lost everything were said to have been seen, "waddling out of the Alley."
I then googled the phrase and found the following:
Dear Mr. Morris -- Do you know the source of the phrase "lame duck?" -- Barb Bumann, Spokane Public Library, Spokane, WA.
Now here's an easy one. The phrase "lame duck" comes to us from Aesop's Fables, specifically the tale of Androcles and the Duck. It seems that an escaped slave named Androcles encountered a ferocious duck in the forest. But rather than eating the terrified slave, the duck merely asked Androcles to pull a thorn from his paw, or foot, or whatever. Androcles complied, and he and the "lame duck" became fast friends, frequenting local bars and often sharing a cab home. Many years later, Androcles found himself at a banquet where the main course was roast duck. (Aesop, of course, is best known as the founder of the Greek philosophy known as Cheap Irony.) Unable to stomach the thought that his feathered old friend might be integral to the repast, Androcles decided to leave the banquet, but on his way out stepped on a lion's paw and was summarily eaten. The moral? Eat what you're served and never share a cab with a duck.
Oh, all right. A lame duck (I suppose I ought to call it "flight-challenged") is one unable to keep up with the flock and who is thus easy prey for predators. The phrase "lame duck" was first applied on the London Stock Exchange in the 18th century to brokers who could not pay their debts. Beginning in 19th-century America, "lame duck" was used to describe a Congressional representative who had failed to hornswoggle the voters into re- electing him in November, but who was not due, under the Constitution, to actually be booted out until the following March. Thus freed of even the pretense of accountability to the voters, such "lame ducks" usually voted themselves a scandalous jackpot of perks, until a stop was put to the practice by the "Lame Duck Amendment" of 1934. Today, new Congresspeople take office in January, their defeated opponents no longer have an opportunity to loot and pillage on their way out, and thus Congress has become a temple of honesty. And you thought the duck story was ridiculous.
Pretty funny - but here's the best part from China Daily. You've got to read the whole column by Zhang Xin, but here's where his googling and some cultural disjunction are expressed.
First, this from the Guardian:
As George Bush sits in the Oval Office, perhaps the lamest of all lame ducks, Barack Obama is looking presidential for the press, fielding calls from world leaders and mulling appointments to his new cabinet.
My question to you is, why is George Bush called a lame duck?
Well, let the beating about the Bush begin.
The literal meaning first. A lame duck is one that can't walk because, say, there's a thorn in her flabby foot as is in accordance with Androcles and the Duck, from Aesop's Fables. In the fable, Androcles the escaped slave, helped to pull the thorn from the lame duck, an otherwise ferocious man-eating creature, and the two became friends. This is perhaps the origin of the phrase "lame duck", metaphorically referring to someone who's gone lame and become ineffective.
George Bush is not referred to as a "lame duck" in this sense, however, not on the strength or weakness of his feet and legs - the guy runs miles daily and is NOT crippled, he is not lame. Intellectually lame perhaps, according to some harsh critics (Bush Sr., Dole, Bush Jr., McCain: Where's the substantive difference? They are all intellectually lame Republicans - Elephant in the Big Tent, by George Neumayr, February 7, 2008, The American Spectator), but not physically.