Thanksgiving is the U.S. holiday that many people jokingly call “Turkey Day.” That’s because most people celebrate the occasion by baking a turkey: the domesticated version of a member of the pheasant and grouse family native to the Americas.
Why do we call this bird a “turkey?” It’s a case of mistaken identity. For centuries before Europeans came to North America, Turkish traders were importing African guinea fowl into Europe. The birds were known as “turkey-cocks.”
When North American traders started to import our bird from the Americas into Europe, they were sometimes mistaken for turkey-cocks, and then they came to be known as “turkeys.” The name stuck.
So yes, the bird turkey is named after the country Turkey, even though they don’t actually come from Turkey.
To ‘talk turkey’ means to speak plainly
We also have a number of phrases and idioms that use the word “turkey.”
First off, we have the expression “to talk turkey.” This means to speak plainly, or to get down to business. For example, if someone is hedging about whether they want to go out with you, you might say, “Let’s talk turkey. Do you like me or not?” When you talk turkey, you get right to the point. You tell the plain truth.
The origin is complicated, but it may have come from a story in the 1800s about a white man who tried keep all the turkeys for himself when he went hunting with a Native American, who was having none of it.
To ‘go cold turkey’ means to stop abruptly
Another expression is to “go cold turkey.” This means to stop something abruptly, without planning or pacing yourself. It originally referred to withdrawal from an addictive substance, like alcohol or drugs. But now it can refer to anything.
You could say, “I stopped sleeping late cold turkey,” if you decided to wake up every day at 5:00 am—and started doing so the next day.
The Oxford English Dictionary says that Canadians first used the term in 1921, and the citation doesn’t make it sound pleasant:
Perhaps the most pitiful figures who have appeared before Dr. Carleton Simon…are those who voluntarily surrender themselves. When they go before him, they [sc. drug addicts] are given what is called the ‘cold turkey’ treatment.
When you look at how often the phrase is used in published books though, it didn’t seem to take off until around 1965. It’s also far more common in American English than in British English.
Nobody seems to be quite sure how the phase “cold turkey” came to describe this kind of extreme sudden quitting. The Oxford Dictionary of English Idioms says, “The image is one of the possible unpleasant side effects of this, involving bouts of shivering and sweating that cause goose flesh or goose pimples, a bumpy condition of the skin which resembles the flesh of a dead plucked turkey.”
Calling someone a ‘turkey’ is not very nice
We can also call a person a turkey. When we say that, we mean that they’re a real washup; a bad egg, a loser. When we refer to some thing being a turkey, we mean that it’s a dud or a flop; it’s disappointing or of little value.
For example, we might say the awful movie we went to see was a real turkey. And if our friends hogged all the popcorn and talked through the whole movie, that they were turkeys too.
The negative meaning of “turkey” likely comes from the fact that domesticated turkeys are not the brightest of creatures. Male turkeys, in fact, will attack anything that looks even vaguely like a threat, including their own reflections.
A ‘turkey shoot’ means anything easy
There’s also such a thing as a turkey shoot. This phrase is based on an old type of shooting match held in the U.S. in which turkeys were both the targets and the prizes. It sounds quite unsporting! The turkeys were usually tied up, so they were easy to shoot.
Thus, a “turkey shoot” means anything that is super easy to do. Specifically, it refers to a battle in which one side wins with little difficulty, usually with massive bloodshed on the other side.
A turkey-buzzard is not a turkey
Here’s a final fact for the day. You may have heard of the turkey-buzzard, another bird native to the Americas. It’s not the same thing as a turkey. Turkey-buzzards do not have pretty tails and soft, brown feathers. They have a coal-black coat and a bare, wrinkly, reddish head and neck.
More important, they do not eat cute piles of corn. They eat dead things. Preferably things that have died recently. In other words, they’re carrion vultures.
Image courtesy of Shutterstock.
Ammer, Christine. Cold turkey, talk turkey. American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms, 2nd ed. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013.
Green, Jonathan. Turkey. Green’s Dictionary of Slang, online edition, subscription required, accessed November 14, 2019.
Mental Floss. 15 Facts About Turkeys to Gobble Right Up, accessed November 14, 2019..
Oxford English Dictionary, online edition. Turkey. Oxford University Press (subscription required, accessed November 14, 2019).