Turkey: A Bird or a Country?

The republic of Turkey isn’t exactly a breeding ground for the bird that Americans associate with Thanksgiving. In fact, the turkey is native to North America . . . so, why do they share the same name?

Let’s get the word facts!

The word turkey has been used to refer to “land occupied by the Turks” since the 1300s and was even used by Chaucer in The Book of the Duchess. The word Turk is of unknown origin, but it’s used in such varying languages as Italian, Arabic, Persian, and many others to refer to people from this region. The land occupied by the Turks was known as the Ottoman Empire from the 1300s until 1922. And, following World War I and the fall of the Ottomans, the republic of Turkey formed, taking on the name that had long referred to that region. Makes sense, right? Turks live in Turkey.

As for the turkey with wings, Meleagris gallopavo is an odd-looking bird that’s known for its bare head, wattle, and iridescent plumage. It’s from North America (not the middle east).

So, how did the land occupied by the Turks become associated with a North American bird?

To understand this, we have to get to know another bird: the guinea fowl. This bird bears some resemblance to the American turkey. The guinea fowl is actually native to eastern Africa and was imported to Europe through the Ottoman Empire. Ah, we are seeing a connection! Once imported, Europeans came to call the guinea fowl the turkey-cock or turkey-hen, because the bird came from the Turks. When settlers in the New World began to send similar-looking fowl back to Europe, they, out of familiarity, called them turkeys.

But, every language seems to have radically different names for this bird, and so Turkey the nation is definitely the first and correct usage of the word. The Turkish word for the bird is hindi, which literally means “Indian.” The original word in French, coq d’Inde, meant “rooster of India,” and has since shortened to dinde. These names likely derive from the common misconception that India and the New World were one and the same. In Portuguese, it’s literally a “Peru bird,” and in Malay, it’s called a “Dutch chicken.”

Turkey meet Thanksgiving

The turkey’s acceptance into the Old World happened quickly. By 1575, the English were enjoying the North American bird at Christmas dinner, and Shakespeare talked about it in Henry IV. Turkey with gravy became even more well known when Charles Dickens wrote about it in A Christmas Carol in 1843. Once Lincoln declared Thanksgiving a national holiday in 1863, turkey had become a staple of Christmas dinner and quickly became a Thanksgiving treat, as well.

And so, turkeys, as we know them, have fared better than their guinea-fowl relatives on the international scene . . . when’s the last time you saw a guinea fowl at the grocery store? But, the next time you think about turkey, give a respectful nod to guinea fowls and their Turkish associations.

Posted Status in History
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