Talking turkey: the bird’s the word
The Word Nerd
Thanksgiving (known colloquially as turkey day) is a time when some have pondered the enigma of why this fowl is named after an Islamic country that celebrates neither Thanksgiving nor football.
I pose this question in light of the visit of two friends who travelled to Lisbon, Portugal, this summer and dined at a restaurant where they noticed that the word for “turkey” in Portuguese was “peru.” Upon their return they asked me why the Portuguese ascribed a Peruvian connection to the bird and further inquired why in French and Hebrew it ’s named after India, dinde and hodu respectively.
Perhaps subconsciously, people travel great distances on Thanksgiving to honour this well-travelled domestic fowl. The large, ungainly bird, whose technical name is Meleagris gallopavo, was first domesticated by the Maya and Aztecs who dwelled in Mexico and Central America. When the Spanish conquered the Aztecs, they began to export this bird back to Europe and Asia. At approximately the same juncture in the early 16th century, Portuguese traders in the New World sent the fowl to their Goa colony in India. From the beginning, the New World fowl was confused with Meleagris numida, a bird commonly found in Africa (and particularly Guinea) that had been known to Mediterranean peoples as the “guinea fowl” or “turkey-cock.”
For 16th century geography-challenged Englishmen, Turkey could refer to anything from the whole of the Ottoman Empire to any of the various lands under Islamic hegemony. The word “turkey” first appears in 1596 in Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Part 1 and shortly thereafter, in the early 17th century, in the writings of Captain John Smith of Pocahontas lore. In 1607, Smith wrote that, after peace with the natives of Jamestown was established, the Indians brought “Venison, Turkies, wilde foule, bread, and what they had, singing and dancing in signe of friendship til they departed. ” Turkeys were among the fowl served at the first Thanksgiving dinner in 1621.
While the English language has made Turkey a stand-in for Asia, other languages have regarded India as the quintessence of the continent. Nor is it only the French dinde (of India) and the Hebrew hodu (India) where this occurs. In Russian, the word for “turkey” is indyushka (from India), Italians sometimes refer to the bird as pollo d’India, and in Turkey itself the name of the bird is hindi (the language of India). Polish, Catalan and Basque also name the fowl after India. Some languages are even more specific and name it after the Indian city of Calicut such as Danish kalkun, Dutch and Afrikaans kalkoen, and Finnish kalkkuna.
The designation of “peru” for “turkey” makes sense, since the country is actually geographically closer to the Central American origin of the “turkey.” Speakers of Portuguese designated the Spanish Americas as Peru, and since the bird emanated from there, it too was known in Portuguese as “peru.” Probably influenced by Portuguese, some dialects of Hindi use the term peru pakshi (Peru bird) to refer to a turkey.
Turkeys have developed a reputation as the dimwits of the poultry world. It is said that they catch cold as a result of wet feet and can suffocate when flocks press together in mass panic. Also, a farmer friend of mine informs me that he must coax his turkeys to eat by placing colourful marbles in their feed. As a result of its intellectual shortcomings, ‘turkey’ has become slang for any stupid or worthless thing since before 1930. It has also had the specialized sense of an inferior or unsuccessful theatrical or film production from about the same period. In the 1920s, American humourist S.J. Perelman referred to himself as “a Pennsylvania farmer of prized turkeys, which he displays on Broadway once a year. ” From that point on, it developed other pejorative senses to refer to a worthless or inept person. Also, because turkeys are relatively easy to catch, the term “turkey shoot” refers to a non-challenging venture.
Benjamin Franklin lobbied for the turkey to become the American national bird but his efforts were in vain, and the bald eagle received the kudos. On the other hand, when we speak frankly we don’t “talk eagle” we “talk turkey.”
So I hope that this Thanksgiving, along with adding cranberry sauce to the meal’s star attraction, you will take a few moments to ponder the travails of this well-travelled and much maligned bird.
Howard Richler’s latest book, Can I Have a Word With You?, will be released in November