Food CultureThanksgiving TM_FC_TURKEY_FI_001

Talking Turkey

The big bird’s ambiguous role in American idiom


When I set out to learn more about the source of the word turkey and some of its idiomatic variants, I had no idea that the research would lead me, well, on a wild goose chase.

Let’s start with the word for the bird. Turkeys are North American in origin; the domesticated fowl we raise today is the descendent of a slightly smaller wild bird found throughout the continent, though a cousin of this bird was domesticated in Mesoamerica long before Spanish explorers arrived. The Spanish called Mexican bird pavo, or peacock, after another fowl with spectacular plumage. Further north, English colonists thought the wild turkeys looked more like guineafowl, a small African bird that was imported to England through Turkey. Due to their trade origin, the guineafowl were sometimes called turkeys—and thereafter, so was the wild North American bird. In the nation of Turkey, as it happens, the bird is referred to as hindi, or from the country of India; in India, the bird is called peru, after the South American country; elsewhere in Europe, the turkey is known most commonly as “French chicken” and or “Indian chicken”—the latter generally refers to continental India.

Like the eggplant, the turkey’s many names are suggestive of its path through a world enamored of exploration, trade, and encounters with new cultures. As European explorers claimed bits of the New World for their home countries, turkeys were shipped back to the Continent, where they became an instant hit for their large size and mild flesh. In Charles Dickins’ A Christmas Carol, a reformed and generous Scrooge buys the Crachit family an enormous turkey for Christmas—a luxurious feast that outshines the goose the poor family had likely saved up for all year.  In fact, turkey had become a centerpiece in British holiday traditions long before it became synonymous with Thanksgiving—which did not become an annual celebration until two decades after this literary feast. Before Abraham Lincoln declared the national holiday in 1863, thanksgivings were only celebrated sporadically by the colonies and young republic; if turkeys were prepared for those communal meals, the birds were likely imported from England!

But despite these entangled international relationships, the turkey is deeply embedded in American slang—so deeply that it’s difficult to trace how and why certain turkey-based idioms emerged. The use of turkey as a derisive term, for example, might be linked to the turkey’s own deportment: bred too large-breasted to fly and said to be extremely stupid, the turkey is an easy mark for insulting the pompous and the foolish.  Yet, the word turkey has not unilaterally been pejorative throughout history: since the mid-1800s, to “talk turkey” has typically* meant “to speak plainly and honestly”—a manner of speech that has always been highly valued in American culture. On the other hand, because we are now in the etymological jungle of slang, variations of this same idiom exist where “talking turkey” implies just the opposite of plain speech, indicating high-flown or overstuffed language. In either case, very little is known about how “turkey” came to stand in for various (and sometimes conflicting) meanings.

For another example: when Annie Oakley sings that there’s no business like show business, “even with a turkey that you know will fold,” she’s taking up early twentieth-century Broadway slang for a third-rate production. This usage may well derive from the aforementioned (and probably undeserved) reputation of the turkey as an overstuffed, overly embellished, or foolish bird. But because it doesn’t have the stable Oxford English Dictionary-approved etymology as other curious words, one can imagine other possibilities. Slang is unpredictable: perhaps “turkey” evolved as the printable substitute for a less polite word, the way “darn” and “shoot” might replace other similar-sounding words. Or, perhaps the theatrical use of “turkey” is related somehow to the word “farce,” which we commonly understand to mean a ridiculous staged production, but which is also used to refer to turkey offal. (The OED does have a legitimate explanation for the two faces of “farce.” Theatrical farces derive from the same Latin root as the forcemeats—farcire, “to stuff”— because the humorous and usually lowbrow skits were “stuffed” between acts of other medieval staged productions.)

The phrase “cold turkey” is even more susceptible to fanciful interpretation. To quit something cold turkey is to stop suddenly, without tapering or weaning. One favored explanation is that “cold turkey” alludes to the appearance of a former addict suffering from severe withdrawal symptoms, including pale, clammy, and goosepimply skin like plucked fowl; John Lennon plays on this association in the song “Cold Turkey.”  More likely, though, quitting cold turkey is related to an older idiom: in the 1920s, when “cold turkey treatment” is first recorded in reference to drug rehabilitation, “talking cold turkey” was a not uncommon variant of the aforementioned term for plain speech.  And since people have been known to quit all kinds of things cold turkey—including mild bad habits and people—it would seem that the phrase has more idiomatic appeal than merely the visual associations.

That has been the lesson of my ambiguous, convoluted turkey trail: whether considered homey or homely, exotic or idiotic, the turkey has a lot of presence in American speech—and, accordingly, in American imagination. More than just the symbol of Thanksgiving bounty and sacrifice, the turkey has a changing, conflicting, and curious history.

By day, Sara is a marketer for a university press. By night, she is a dissertating student of literature – 90% toward a doctorate and buffering. When not working toward the production of scholarly books from one end or the other, she might be found supporting the performing arts scene by taking tickets or buying them, or else standing around at farmer’s markets, squeezing all the peaches. She writes about food in art and literature at Scenes of Eating.


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