Know Your Words

Happy Thanksgiving, You Turkey

President Bush pardons the Thanksgiving turkey in the Rose Garden.
W. inspects the subject of his presidential pardon.

I love Thanksgiving. The relative non-commercialism, the gluttony, the several types of pie. In honor of this special day, I’m going to pass a serving of etymology your way and give you the stuffing on the word turkey.

Here’s the skinny on the bird that’ll be the word this coming Thursday. Turkey, says the (Ayto) Dictionary of Word Origins:

… was originally applied to the guinea fowl, because the bird was purportedly imported into Europe from Africa by the Portuguese through Turkish territory. When the American bird we now know as the turkey was introduced to the British in the mid-16th century it seems to have reminded them of guinea fowl, for they transferred the guinea fowl’s name, turkey, to it.

This is the general story—that the American bird reminded people of the African bird, so they gave it the guinea fowl’s old name: turkey. Yet, the Merriam-Webster New Book of Word Histories fattens this story up with a second helping of detail.

The large, ungainly bird that is known scientifically as the Meleagris gallopavo was first domesticated by the Aztecs, Mayas, and other civilized Indian tribes of Mexico and Central America. At the time of their conquest of the “New” World, the Spanish began exporting the domesticated fowl to the “Old” World. First introduced into the lands bordering the Mediterranean early in the 16th century, the fowl was gradually domesticated throughout northern Europe and England.

From the beginning, the New World fowl was confused with a bird of African origin that had been known to Mediterranean peoples since ancient times. The Old World bird was commonly known as the guinea fowl, guinea cock, or turkey-cock. The name guinea fowl derived from the fact that it was sometimes exported from Guinea on the west coast of Africa by the Portuguese. The name turkey-cock derived from the fact that the fowl had been originally imported to Europe from the territory that the Europeans thought of as Turkish.

Thanksgiving_1900

Indeed, Samuel Johnson’s dictionary defines turkey as “a large domestic fowl brought from Turkey.” Ambrose Bierce’s Devil’s Dictionary, on the other hand, dispenses with such history and offers a more contemporary take on the bird and its unfortunate destiny:

A large bird whose flesh when eaten on certain religious anniversaries has the peculiar property of attesting piety and gratitude. Incidentally, it is pretty good eating.

Now, I know what you’re thinking: “This is all well and good, Dear Papercut, but what does this have to do with insulting a person by calling him or her a turkey?”

I tried to find the answer to that question. The closest I came was the following entry for turkey in The Slang of Sin: “A gambler who is not familiar with the etiquette of the game or gambling.”

Since we tend to call someone a “turkey” when he or she is acting foolish or doing something stupid, my guess is that the use of the word as an insult hatched from this slangy use of the term.

Happy? Good. Now please pass the pie.

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