The bird we today call a turkey is native to America. Yet, how did it become associated with the country of Turkey?
Turk, the name of the people, is of unknown origin. It has cognates in the Romance languages, Byzantine Greek, Persian, and Arabic. It may even be related to the Chinese Tu-kin, a name given to a nomadic people thought to be who we now call the Huns. The Tu-kins occupied the land south of the Altai mountains in Asia in the 3rd century B.C.E.
The name Turkey, the land of the Turks, makes its English appearance in the 14th century. From Chaucer’s c.1369 The Dethe of Blaunche:
Ne sende men in-to Walakye,...To Alisaundre, ne in-to Turkye.
(Nor send men into Wallachia,…To Alexandria, nor into Turkey.)
In the 16th century, the guinea-fowl was introduced to Europe. While the bird is actually native to Africa, it was brought to Europe via Turkey and so was dubbed the turkey. From the 1541 Constitutio T. Cranmeri:
It was also provided, that of the greater fyshes or fowles there should be but one in a dishe, as crane, swan, turkeycocke, hadocke, pyke, tench.
When Europeans arrived in America, they noticed similarities between the guinea-fowl and the American bird and called the latter turkey. William Dugdale’s Origines Juridicales, published in 1666, includes a 1555 citation referencing the American bird:
Turkies 2. rated at 4s. a piece..00. 08. 00.
Theatrical use of turkey to mean a flop dates to the 1920s. A 1927 issue of Vanity Fair has:
“A turkey” is a third rate production.
General disparaging use dates to at least 1941 when it appears in James Cain’s novel Mildred Pierce:
The beach in front was studded with rocks and was therefore unsuitable to swimming. For all ordinary purposes it was simply a turkey.
Exactly why the word was first used to refer disparagingly to a person is uncertain, but it is often claimed to be because of the bird’s fabled low intelligence.
Copyright 1997-2015, by David Wilton