‘Tis the season where we think about turkeys—namely: how best to eat them. But while the focus is generally on how good it tastes, or how succulent it is, or if a smaller, lesser bird should be stuffed inside (chicken? duck?), there’s a part of the bird many people neglect to think about: the word “turkey” itself. In fact, the nomenclature of America’s favorite holiday bird is surprisingly interesting.
It’s all one big mix-up.
The name “turkey” originates all the way back in the 1540s, when the term was originally used to describe a bird imported into Europe from Madagascar—by way of Turkey.
“This bird was a type of guinea fowl, Numida meleagris—unrelated, or not very closely related, to what we now call turkeys,” explains Carrie Gillon, co-founder of Quick Brown Fox Consulting, who holds a Ph.D. in linguistics and co-hosts the linguistics podcast The Vocal Fries. “This guinea fowl was also called ‘turkey fowl,’ which [was then] shortened to ‘turkey.’”
So, when the British settlers arrived in the New World and encountered the bird we know today as a turkey—a large woodland fowl native to North America, which had been domesticated by the Aztecs in what would become Mexico—they just called that a “turkey,” too.
“After the two birds were disambiguated, ‘turkey’ was applied to the North American bird instead of the African one (though it wouldn’t have been overly accurate for either bird),” says Gillon.
While Americans gave the bird a name that inaccurately references its origins, a number of other European countries did something similar. Likely related to the misconception that the Americas were part of eastern Asia (exhibit A: Christopher Columbus originally dubbing the region “the Indies”), many countries now refer to the bird’s “Indian” roots. In French, they call it poulet d’inde,or “chicken from India.” In Russia, the bird is known as indyushka, or “bird of India.” In Poland it’s indyk. And, even in Turkey itself, they call it Hindi (Turkish for “India”). The poor bird just couldn’t catch a break.
Surely, that can’t be all, right?
There’s a second, similar theory, whereby turkeys were shipped from the United States to England through the Middle East. The British applied the “turkey” moniker to a lot of products from the other side of the Danube, and, as NPR’s Robert Krulwich puts it, “Persian carpets were called ‘Turkey rugs.’ Indian flour was called ‘Turkey flour.’ Hungarian carpet bags were called ‘Turkey bags.’”
So, the delicious birds from North America earned the name “Turkey-coq,” and, eventually, just “turkey.” Whichever explanation has it right—and both are likely at least partly correct—the turkey got its name through some combo of confusion or sloppiness.
All of this, of course, begs the question: why did “turkey” become a negative term, applied to a person who is doing something silly or foolish? Gillon, for her part, answers this question with another question.
“Have you seen a wild turkey in real life?” she asks. “They’re ridiculous looking.”
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