Photo by Malene Thyssen
The name of our Thanksgiving bird has a history almost as colorful as its handsome plumage, and certainly as exotic, but is based on two historical mistakes — one of geography, and one of fowl distinction.
Which came first: the big chicken or the country? Well, the Turks gave Turkey the country its name, and even thought the origin of the word Turk is unclear, we know that the country’s English name was “Turki” or “Turkeye” by 1275, a few centuries before the fowl that we now know as a turkey was even found in that part of the old world. So the country came first. And it’s because people were geographically and fowlishly challenged in the 16th and 17th centuries that the Thanksgiving bird got its name.
Dating from the early 16th century, the English name turkey was first given not to the species of fowl that bears the name today but to a different, smaller bird. The Numida meleagris — which we now know as the guinea fowl — was imported from Madagascar via Turkey, and as The Straight Dope explains,”this bird was introduced to the Mediterranean in ancient times and was known (as a rarity) to the Greeks and Romans. It was named after the mythical Meliagrides, who were the sisters of Meleager and who were turned to birds after his death. This bird seems to have disappeared from Europe and was reintroduced from west Africa by Portuguese traders at the end of the fifteenth century. If this bird was from Africa, why was it called “turkey” in English? Probably because it was introduced to England by so-called “Turkey merchants” who traded with the Mediterranean region, including the Ottoman Empire (which then controlled the eastern third of that sea). A similar confusion caused another New World species, maize or corn (Zea mays), to be called “Turkey wheat” or “Turkey corn” in England.”
The Meleagris gallopavo, a larger bird from North America, was introduced to Spain by conquistadors in the early 16th century, and from there to other parts of Europe. The name turkey, according to the Online Etymology Dictionary, was first conferred on this larger bird in the 1550s either because it was understood to be a species of the smaller but similar guinea fowl already on European soil, or because it arrived in Spain and Europe by way of North Africa, which was then under Ottoman (Turkish) rule. The Oxford English Dictionary describes what happened once it was established that these feathered friends weren’t actually related: “After the two birds were distinguished and the names differentiated, turkey was erroneously retained for the American bird, instead of the African. From the same imperfect knowledge and confusion Melagris, the ancient name of the African fowl, was unfortunately adopted by Linnæus as the generic name of the American bird.”
Dictionary.com tells us that the Turkish word for turkey is hindi, meaning “Indian”. The original word in French, coq d’Inde, meant “rooster of India”, and has since shortened to dinde. These names probably arose from a common misconception at the time that India and the New World were one and the same. In Portuguese, it’s a “Peru bird,” and in Malay, it’s a “Dutch chicken.”
The unfortunate but tasty turkey has lent its own name to several other meanings and expressions, whose origins are explained below by the Online Etymology Dictionary.
Meaning “inferior show, failure,” dates from 1927 in show business slang, probably from the bird’s reputation for stupidity.
Meaning “stupid, ineffectual person” is recorded from 1951.
“Turkey shoot” meaning “something easy” is from the World War II era, in reference to marksmanship contests where turkeys were tied behind a log with their heads showing as targets.
To talk turkey (1824) supposedly comes from an old tale of a Yankee attempting to swindle an Indian in dividing up a turkey and a buzzard as food.
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