Within the turkey lies the tangled history of the world.
Okay, not quite. But not far off, either.
“Turkey” the bird is native to North America. But turkey the word is a geographic mess—a tribute to the vagaries of colonial trade and conquest. As you might have suspected, the English term for the avian creature likely comes from Turkey the country. Or, more precisely, from Turkish merchants in the 15th and 16th centuries.
How exactly the word turkey made its way into the English language is in dispute. The linguist Mario Pei theorized that more than five centuries ago, Turks from the commercial hub of Constantinople (which the Ottomans conquered in the mid-15th century) sold wild fowl from Guinea in West Africa to European markets, leading the English to refer to the bird as “turkey cock” or “turkey coq” (coq being French for “rooster”), and eventually “turkey” for short. When British settlers arrived in Massachusetts, they applied the same terms to the wild fowl they spotted in the New World, even though the birds were a different species than their African counterparts. The etymology expert Mark Forsyth, meanwhile, claims that Turkish traders brought guinea fowl to England from Madagascar, off the coast of southeast Africa, and that Spanish conquistadors then introduced American fowl to Europe, where they were conflated with the “turkeys” from Madagascar. Dan Jurafsky, another linguist, argues that Europeans imported guinea fowl from Ethiopia (which was sometimes mixed up with India) via the Mamluk Turks, and then confused the birds with North American fowl shipped across the Atlantic by the Portuguese.
Here’s where things get even more bewildering. Turkey, which has no native turkeys, does not call turkey turkey. The Turks “knew the bird wasn’t theirs,” Forsyth explains, so they “made a completely different mistake and called it a hindi, because they thought the bird was probably Indian.” They weren’t alone. The French originally called the American bird poulet d’Inde (literally “chicken from India”), which has since been abbreviated to dinde, and similar terms exist in languages ranging from Polish to Hebrew to Catalan. Then there’s the oddly specific Dutch word kalkoen, which, as a contraction of Calicut-hoen, literally means “hen from Calicut,” a major Indian commercial center at the time. These names might have arisen from the mistaken belief at the time that the New World was the Indies, or the sense that the turkey trade passed through India.
So what is the bird called in India? It might be hindi in Turkey, but in Hindi it’s ṭarki. Some Indian dialects, however, use the word piru or peru, the latter being how the Portuguese refer to the American fowl, which is not native to Peru but might have become popular in Portugal as Spanish and Portuguese explorers conquered the New World. The expansion of Western colonialism only complicated matters: Malaysians call turkey ayam blander (“Dutch chicken”), while Cambodians opt for moan barang (“French chicken”).
Then there are the turkey truthers and linguistic revisionists. In the early 1990s, for instance, a debate broke out in the “Letter to the Editor” section of The New York Times over the possible Hebrew origins of the word turkey. On December 13, 1992, Rabbi Harold M. Kamsler suggested (as a follow-up to a Thanksgiving-themed piece titled “One Strange Bird”) that the New World fowl received its English name from Christopher Columbus’s interpreter, Luis de Torres, a Jewish convert to Catholicism. In an October 12, 1492 letter to a friend in Spain, de Torres had referred to the American bird he encountered as a tuki, the word for “peacock” in ancient Hebrew and “parrot” in modern Hebrew (a more dubious version of this story claims that Columbus himself was a Jew who hid his identity in the aftermath of the Spanish Inquisition but drew on his lineage to christen the fowl).
Kamsler’s letter, however, was met with a firm rebuttal from the president of the Association for the Study of Jewish Languages, David L Gold. “Rabbi Kamsler’s explanation, not original with him, is an old yarn spun in uninformed Jewish circles,” Gold wrote. “Along with countless other pseudoscientific claims about supposed Hebrew influence on English and other languages, the myth of the Hebrew origin of ‘turkey’ was quietly exploded in volume 2 of Jewish Linguistic Studies (1990).”
The turkey’s scientific name doesn’t make much more sense than its vernacular one. Its binomial nomenclature, Meleagris gallopavo, is a hodgepodge. The first name comes from a Greek myth in which the goddess Artemis turned the grieving sisters of the slain Meleager into guinea fowls. The second name is a portmanteau: Gallo is derived from the Latin word for rooster, gallus, while pavo is the Latin word for peacock. So, effectively, the official name for a turkey is guinea-fowl-rooster-peacock.
Reflecting on his interview with Mario Pei, NPR’s Robert Krulwich noted that “for 500 years now, this altogether American, very gallant if not particularly intelligent animal has never once been given an American name.” But the turkey does have many authentically American names—Americans just choose not to use them. After all, pre-Aztec and Aztec peoples domesticated the turkey more than a millennium before Columbus reached the New World (the Aztecs called the bird huehxolotl). There are numerous Native American words for the bird, including the Blackfoot term omahksipi’kssii, which literally means “big bird.” It’s a bit vague, sure, but it certainly beats guinea-fowl-rooster-peacock.