Fascinating facts about turkeys

Turkey, the country, has no native turkeys

By Shashi Tharoor

Published: Thu 7 Apr 2022, 7:22 PM

We don’t have too many turkeys around in either India or the UAE, but we have the word, if not the bird. The feathered creature called a “turkey” is, in fact, native to North America. But turkey the word in English is named for the wrong country, not because its coiners didn’t know their geography, but probably because Mamluk Turkish merchants in the 15th/16th centuries sold wild fowl from Africa to European markets. This may have led English people to refer to the bird as “turkey cock”, which got contracted to “turkey” for short. When, in due course, the British colonisers reached North America and settled in Massachusetts, they used the same term for the wild fowl they encountered in the New World — even though the American birds were a different species from the African ones!

Here’s where the story becomes even more ironic: Turkey, the country, has no native turkeys. So no one there calls turkey turkey — they call it a hindi! The linguist Mark Forsyth theorises that since the Turks knew the bird wasn’t theirs, they “made a completely different mistake and called it a hindi, because they thought the bird was probably Indian”. (Exotic creatures were, after all, associated with India.) The French made the same mistake — they originally called the North American bird poulet d’Inde (which translates to “chicken from India”), and then abbreviated the cumbersome expression to dinde, which is how it is referred to in France even today. I am also informed that the turkey is named for India in a variety of languages, ranging from Catalan to Hebrew to Polish. To compound the irony, the bird might be hindi in Turkey, but in Hindi it’s called arki!

Indians may not be averse to getting the credit for the “hindi” or the “dinde”, but Malayalis, of whom there are several reading this column, will no doubt be astonished to discover that the Dutch language attributes the bird to them! The Dutch term for a turkey, kalkoen, is a contraction of Calicut-hoen, which literally means “hen from Calicut” (today’s Kozhikode). Some reverse labelling has occurred, though, thanks to Asian countries’ experience of colonialism: Malaysians call the turkey ayam blander (“Dutch chicken”), while Cambodians term it moan barang (“French chicken”). No one actually calls the turkey what it really is — “American fowl”!

It doesn’t help, though, that the terms used by the Native Americans themselves for the bird are unpronounceable by the rest of us. The Aztec peoples are said to have domesticated the turkey a thousand years or more before the British colonists “discovered” it, but they called the bird huehxolotl. Good luck popularising that! The Native American tribes had their own words for the bird, of course; one I came across is the Blackfoot tribe’s word omahksipi’kssii, which simply means “big bird”. But it was White Americans who made the word “turkey” stick — and in due course invented the expression “talking turkey”.

The meaning of the phrase “talking turkey” has evolved since it was invented in the early 19th century, from speaking agreeably or pleasantly, as people did over turkey at the Thanksgiving dinner table, to the contemporary meaning of blunt talk, frank speaking, or “getting down to brass tacks”. To talk turkey is to discuss something frankly and in a practical rather than roundabout manner. When a businessman wants to get to the point and settle a business deal he might say to his potential partner, “Let’s talk turkey.” This may well go back to the time when the English settlers needed to acquire turkeys from the Native Americans, who caught them in the wild and supplied them to the colonists. The story goes that the locals would ask, when they encountered a colonist, “have you come to talk turkey?”

The word “turkey” also has a number of other meanings. While Americans enjoy their turkey, if they call you one, it is not a compliment — a ‘turkey” is a stupid or inept person, rather like the bird. A show or a movie that is called a turkey is a flop. And then there’s the expression “to go cold turkey”, meaning abruptly stopping a bad habit, such as consuming alcohol or taking an addictive drug. “He used to drink half a bottle every day, but now he’s gone cold turkey and won’t touch the stuff.” Just don’t go cold turkey on this column, though!


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