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Tutor Yousie 's Column

Thanksgiving Part I: Why is "turkey" called "turkey"?

Nov 27, 2019

Meleagris gallopavo, also known in laymen's terms simply as turkey, is the quintessential centerpiece of any American's Thanksgiving feast. As I finished up some preparations for tomorrow's 9+ hours of cooking, I decided to share a few nuggets of information regarding this beloved American bird and the country that shares its name. 

Even native Anglophones would balk at answering such random questions as "Why is a turkey (the bird) called turkey? Is the bird in English named after the country, Turkey? Or vice versa? Do people in Turkey call turkeys 'turkeys' also? If not, what do they call them?" People who had a hyperactive and inquisitive mind as a child may be able to answer your random, but justifiably reasonable, questions 

The bird, turkey, (not capitalized) is native to North America and there are no native turkeys in the country of Turkey (capitalized). Turkey (the country) is 3% geographically in Europe and 97% in Asia (namely, the Middle East) and has been known as "the land of the Turks" (or Turkish people) since the 1300s. While it was the Ottoman Empire until its fall after WWI in 1922, it subsequently reverted back to being called "Turkey". 

Now, to understand why the American bird, turkey, shares its name with the Eurasian country, Turkey, let me introduce to you the guineafowl.

The guinea fowl somewhat resembles the American turkey. Although the guinea fowl hails from East Africa, the Ottoman Empire (today's Turkey) imported it and exported it to the rest of Europe. Thus, English speaking Europeans (English, Scottish, Irish, Welsh) began calling the guinea fowl "turkey cock" or "turkey hen" since they mistakenly thought that the guinea fowl was from Turkey. When these Europeans began colonizing North America, they saw the American turkey and since it reminded them of their "turkey hens" (guinea fowls) back in Europe, they just began calling them "turkeys". 

Thus, Turkey (the country) came first, before the word turkey (the bird). This confusion only seems to happen in English. The French word for turkey, for instance, is "dinde". This comes from shortening the original word for the bird, "coq d'Inde" (literally, rooster of India - since the New World was mistakenly thought of as India before it was recognized as the Americas). Thus, likewise, in Turkey, they call turkeys "hindi" (meaning Indian). 

While turkeys grace the tables of American Thanksgiving feasts, they are usually Christmas favorites in the UK. Americans usually prefer Christmas ham (but in my family, we've always had roast beef or roast turkey for Christmas dinner since my father hates ham). 

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