The meaning and origin of words and phrases related to turkeys
The origin of the turkey’s name is somewhat convoluted. First used in English in the 16th century, the word originally described a domesticated species of guinea fowl (Numida meleagris). This ‘turkey’ was so-called because it was brought to England from its native Africa by traders who were known to the English as Turkey merchants because they were from the Turkish Ottoman Empire.
When the larger bird that we now know as the turkey (Meleagris gallopavo) arrived from South America, they were identified with the superficially similar guinea fowl and so were also known as turkeys. When the two species were later differentiated, it was the arrivals from Mexico that continued to be known as turkeys. The original turkeys became known as guinea fowl, a lesser-used alternative name they had as a result of them having been brought to Europe from Guinea in West Africa.
The foreignness of the Mexican turkey has also led to it having been named after where it was thought to come from in other parts of the world. For example, in French it is known as dinde which comes from d’Inde meaning ‘from India’ whilst in Turkey itself it is called hindi, also meaning from India.
The word turkey’s reputation of being stupid and easily panicked led to its name being used as a term of derision to describe a slow or inept person. This meaning is first recorded in 1951.
The term a real turkey is used by critics to describe a play, or more recently a movie, that is a complete disaster. It is said to have originated in the US because the time when most plays were opened was between Thanksgiving and Christmas. Because of this timing, a disappointing play was compared to the seasonal tedium of turkey being served throughout this period. Others suggest that the term is from the perceived stupidity of the bird.
Cold turkey is used to describe the painful withdrawal effects of a complete and abrupt cessation of something upon which you are dependent/to which you are addicted. Most often associated with abruptly quitting highly addictive drugs such as heroin, it is also used with reference to the giving up of alcohol or nicotine (smoking) in a similarly abrupt manner. The expression is generally thought to derive from a side-effect of such a withdrawal from drugs, i.e. sweats and shivering resulting in goose pimples that give the skin the appearance of that of a dead, plucked turkey. The expression originated in the US and dates back to the early 20th century.
On a more positive note, a turkey describes three consecutive strikes in a game of ten pin bowling. This is said to originate from a practice around the turn of the 20th century where bowling proprietors would give a live turkey as a reward for achieving three strikes around Christmas or Thanksgiving. The turkey’s close association with Thanksgiving is such that that day is sometimes known colloquially as Turkey Day.
In Britain turkey is the bird of choice for Christmas dinner and this it is this association that is referred to in the expression like turkeys voting for Christmas. This saying means something self-defeating in nature and thus extremely unlikely to happen.
Talk turkey is a North American colloquialism for talking frankly or getting down to business. It dates from the early-mid 19th century, when it was often used to mean ‘talk politely’. It is of uncertain origin but a number of theories have been offered, including that it originated in American colonial days and the trading of turkeys between native Indians and the white men.
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