Word Histories: Etymologies Derived From the Files of the Dictionary of American Regional English

cold turkey

Although some members of Congress had already concluded that the B-2 Stealth bomber was a turkey, Les Aspin, the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, called last summer for a “cold turkey” freeze on funding for the half-billion-dollar bird to allow time for further debate on the issue. In other words, he wanted money for the Stealth program to be halted abruptly. To quit cold turkey, meaning to quit abruptly, appeared in the 1920s and probably developed from to talk cold turkey, meaning to speak bluntly or abruptly about something. The word turkey has long had a negative connotation, perhaps deriving from the tendency in this century to regard the turkey as stupid and ugly. Beginning in the 1920s an unsuccessful movie or play was a turkey (“The boys at the studio have lined up another turkey for us” — Groucho Marx, 1939), and a few decades later the sense had broadened to refer to a dull, inept person. The name itself is a misnomer. Turkey originally referred to the guinea fowl, native to Africa, which Turkish traders introduced to England in the sixteenth century. This association between bird and traders established the name. At about the same time, Spanish conquistadors introduced North American turkeys into Europe from southern Mexico, where they had been domesticated by the Aztec Indians. To the English, the North American bird, with its bald, wattled head, resembled a guinea fowl, so both birds were for a time called turkeys. When people learned to tell the two apart, turkey stuck with the American bird.

mumbo jumbo

Senator Joseph Biden’s reaction to certain recent proposals by William Bennett, the federal drug czar, was less than encouraging. “We can’t be sandbagged with mumbo jumbo,” he told The New York Times. European adventurers of the eighteenth century were the first to speak of mumbo jumbo, which was supposedly a grotesque idol worshipped in darkest Africa. In 1738 Francis Moore reported, “At Night, I was visited by a Mumbo Jumbo, an Idol, which is among the Mundingoes a kind of cunning Mystery. . . . This is a Thing invented by the Men to keep their Wives in awe” { Travels Into the Inland Parts of Africa). Nzambi or zumbi means “god" or “fetish” in Kongo, a West African language, and is the origin of zombie (a voodoo deity, a walking dead person) and in West Indian English jumby (ghost, evil spirit). It may also be the origin of the jumbo in mumbo jumbo, the full expression being a rhyming combination (like razzledazzle, fuddy-duddy, and teenyweeny). Moore’s account, however, places mumbo jumbo among the Mandingo tribes of the Niger region, some distance from the Kongo source. According to an alternative explanation, it is a borrowing from the Mandingo mama (ancestor) + dyumbo (pomponwearer). Regardless, a century later a mumbo jumbo was any object of foolish veneration, and by the 1890s the sense had been broadened to refer to obscure or meaningless talk or nonsense.


Among the many linguistic innovations that George Bush has introduced to the presidency is the frequent use of the words guy and guys, meaning “fellow” and “fellows,” even on formal occasions. Here is Bush, in his own words, inviting the former Prime Minister of Jordan onto the Truman Balcony of the White House: “You guys have to come out here and see something before you leave.” If Bush were a President early in the last century, his use of guy in this context would have been a diplomatic faux pas. At that time a guy was a person of grotesque appearance, like the guys, or effigies of Guy Fawkes, that were paraded and burned in English streets every November 5, the anniversary of the Gunpowder Plot. Guy Fawkes, of course, was a conspirator in that botched attempt to blow up the King and Parliament in 1605 to protest punitive laws against Catholics. The pejorative connotations of guy eventually faded, especially in America, where the name Guy Fawkes had little resonance. By the 1890s guy WAS a neutral if slangy way of referring to a male person. The name Guy is an old one, and may go back to the Slavic god Svanto-Vid, who was worshipped with frenzied dancing. When Christianity arrived on the Baltic scene, the pagan god became Sanctus Vitus, or Saint Vitus, whose name was later given to a nervous disorder (Saint Vitus’s dance). Vitus then became Guido in Italian and Guy in French and English.