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.