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Talk about turkey!  How the Thanksgiving bird got its name (then loaned it out to film flops)

(The Conversation) – “Meleagris Gallopavo Day” is a bit of a mouthful. Perhaps this is why on Thanksgiving, most people will opt for the less ornithologically specific “Turkey Day”.

And just like turkey is a versatile meat, consider these leftover options! – the same goes for the word “turkey”, which can refer to everything from the bird itself to a populated Eurasian country to movie flops.

As a scholar who studies the origin of words, I love to “talk to the turkey” – not only how the bird was named, but also how the word has evolved over time. But let’s start with what has become the centerpiece of most Thanksgiving dinners.

The North American turkey – the one that many families will cut up on Thanksgiving – was domesticated in Mexico about 2,000 years ago.

Europeans saw their first turkeys around 1500 when Spanish explorers arrived in the Americas and brought them back to the motherland. By the 1520s, turkeys were being raised in Spain, and soon the delicacy appeared on the tables of the wealthy across Europe.

Oh, turkey!

But what do you call the new import? New World Europeans were overwhelmed by the new plants and animals they saw and often used colloquial names for unknown species. The Spaniards, for example, thought that turkeys looked like peacocks, so they used the Spanish word “pavos”. The French called them “poules d’Indes”, or Indian chickens, later abbreviated as “turkey”.

To the English, the newly discovered American birds resembled the guinea fowl – a bird native to Africa but introduced to Europe by Arab and Turkish traders in the 14th and 15th centuries.

And it is at this point in history that the modern day turkey gets its name.

The Ottoman Empire was then at its peak. Ethnic Turks, based in Constantinople (now Istanbul), ruled the empire that spanned the Near East, Middle East and North Africa. As a result, for many Europeans anyone “from the East” was a “Turk”.

Because the Ottomans dominated trade in the eastern Mediterranean, many products from Europe were considered “Turkish”. Thus, a precious stone from Persia was named “stone of Turkey”, and the French version of this name, “turquoise stone”, gave us the word “turquoise”.

In the same way, the African guinea fowl, introduced by Turkish traders, has become a “rooster turkey” or a “hen turkey”. Over time this was shortened to “turkey”.

Now it’s a feast!

Since New World turkeys have been in Europe, they have featured in festive meals. The English word first appears in print in an account of a banquet hosted by politician John Prideaux in 1555: the menu included 38 red deer, 43 pheasants, 50 quince pies, 63 swans, 114 pigeons, 120 rabbits, 840 larks, 325 gallons Bordeaux wine and “Turkies 2. noted at 4s. A piece.”

The most famous turkey dinner in history, however, was served at Plymouth Plantation in 1621, when 50 Pilgrims who survived a year of hardship joined 90 Native Americans for a three-day feast. Turkey was not the only dish served. Writing in his History of the Plymouth Plantation, Governor William Bradford noted that Native Americans brought “cod, bass and other fish” and others brought “dirty water” and venison. But he was particularly impressed with the “Wild Turkie Department Store”.

The bird has become so associated with harvest time celebratory dinners that we have called Thanksgiving “Turkey Day” since at least 1870.

During this time, the word continued to find new uses, appearing with dozens of meanings. In 1839, the Southern Literary Messenger – a magazine edited by Edgar Allen Poe – reported on a new type of dance, called the “turkey trot” from its jerky movements.

In 1920, the New York Department of Health reported that “Some addicts voluntarily stop taking opiates and ‘suffer’ … which in their slang is called ‘turkey cold’.

The turkey’s reputation for stupidity sparked other meanings. Legendary gossip columnist Walter Winchell told Vanity Fair readers in 1927 about new showbiz slang: “’A turkey’,” he said, “is a third-rate production. “

Since then, films that flop critics or at the box office have been called Turkeys.

Another derogatory meaning came in the 1950s when turkey became a name for “a stupid, slow, inept or worthless person.” This, in turn, likely led to the rise of the “jive turkey,” which first appeared in African-American discourse in the early 1970s, defined by slang lexicographer Jonathon Green as “a hypocritical, deceptive and dishonest person ”.

Jive or outspoken?

And what about “talk to the turkey”? Well, that can mean some pretty contradictory things.

An 1859 dictionary defines it as “To speak in a stupid way, to speak nonsense”. A similar meaning is attached to another word related to turkey, “gibberish”.

Another definition found in “Americanisms, Old and New” of 1889 had “Talking Turkey” meaning “To use high-sounding words, while plain English would do just as well or better.”

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It is often said that the more familiar meaning of “talk turkey”, in which it replaces “talk direct”, comes from a once popular joke. A white man and an American Indian, the story tells, spend a day hunting together and manage to catch a turkey and a somewhat less abundant hawk. The devious white man offers a “face-I-win-face-you-lose” booty split. “I’ll take the turkey and you the buzzard,” he said, “or, if you prefer, you take the buzzard, and I take the turkey.” Frustrated American Indians respond – usually in a version of so-called comical English pidgin – “You talk to me about a buzzard, and don’t talk about a turkey.”

Those who study word stories are skeptical of stories like this, as most are made up after the fact. More likely, “talking to the turkey” came from a pleasant conversation at Thanksgiving dinner, or perhaps from negotiations between Native Americans and European settlers over the cost of poultry. Regardless of the origin, however, when we “talk to the turkey” we engage in the kind of frank and honest talk that the scheming hunter has denied to his hunting partner.


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