Thanksgiving turkey: Bird with confused origin

Lingual confusion of disowned bird name takes turkey to various locations across globe

Jeyhun Aliyev  | 28.11.2019 - Update : 28.11.2019
Thanksgiving turkey: Bird with confused origin


People have always wondered about the origin of turkey, a bird that has become a staple of Christmas dinner and inevitable part of Thanksgiving feast.

The bird Americans associate with Thanksgiving has been referred to by different geographic locations in various languages across the globe.

The first confusion of the large bird we call a turkey was made in the Mediterranean country of Turkey, which is thought the bird could be originated from.

"The bird is called a turkey because of some confusions. The turkey that we eat at Thanksgiving, genus meleagris, is a domesticated form of a wild bird which is still found widely in North America," Orin Hargraves, a lexicographer told Anadolu Agency.

Hargraves said there were two theories as to why it is called a turkey.

Turkey looks like a different bird of slightly similar appearance, a guineafowl -- birds of the family Numididae, four genera, originated in Africa -- which was called a turkey cock in Europe, since it was originally imported from Turkey, then part of the Ottoman Empire.

The African bird with dark feathers, white spots and a patch of brown on the back of its neck, was brought by traders to Europe while passing the route through Turkish lands.

"Early American settlers who had already seen the guineafowl thought that the North American bird resembled it, and so they also called it a turkey," he said.

To simplify, the name was based on a mistaken identity of two similar-looking kinds of birds -- the species of wild turkey, also called meleagris gallopavo, which were domesticated by indigenous Americans in the New World, and guineafowl, coming to European tables from Africa.

The other "less convincing" theory says the North American bird made its way to the Middle East before being introduced to England and was called turkey there because of its Turkish origin.

Confusion leading to various geographies

It seems that English is not the only language with fascinating names referring to the North American bird.

Assuming the Turkish roots of the bird, one might guess it would be called a turkey in Turkey. Not really. In Turkey, the icon American bird is called hindi, which literally means a [bird] from India.

Almost the same meaning also refers to several other languages, including Ukrainian, Polish and Russian, while the French call it dinde, a short form of coq d’inde -- a name that references India.

In the Catalan language, people use gall dindi meaning an Indian rooster.

It is said the misnaming of turkey as a bird from India was based on a common old misconception that India and the New World were the same place.

Interestingly, in India, where millions refer to as the origin of turkey, the bird is referred as turki.

The geography-oriented name continues in Arabic, whereas turkey is called deek rom-e, which means Roman chicken, referring to Italy. At the same time, some local dialects of Arabic call it habashi, what means Ethiopian bird.

The disowned bird is called western chicken in Vietnamese, while it appears as a fire chicken in Chinese.

In Malaysia, turkey is called as Dutch chicken, while in linguistic clusters such as Dutch, Danish, Swedish and Finnish, the bird got a name kalkoen -- changing as kalkun, kalkunna or kalkon in Scandinavian languages -- which refers to old Indian port of Calicut. Meanwhile, Bahasa Indonesia refers to it as a kalkun chicken.

Calicut, also known as Kozhikode, is a coastal city in the south Indian state of Kerala, which is said to be discovered by Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama in 1498, thus the port got engaged with the Portuguese trade in the 1500s.

In Portuguese, we find that turkey literally means Peru, after the South American state.

Misir, or misirka, a Macedonian rendition of turkey, comes from the Arabic name for Egypt, which is in the wide list of supposed homeland of the bird.

Interestingly, some other languages have not taken geographic location reference and chosen a name from a sound associated with the turkey.

The Persians call the bird booghalamoon similarly to its pipe, while Germany’s truthuhn -- coming from the trut hen -- associated with the noise turkey makes.

In Japanese and Korean, turkey is called the seven-faced bird, probably due to the ability of the bird, especially males, to change its face form depending on its mood.

The Dari language, a variety of the Persian language spoken in Afghanistan, refers to turkey as fel murgh, meaning elephant chicken, probably due to bird's appearance.

In Mexico, it is called guajolote, the word of Nahuatl origin, meaning big monster, which derived from the name for male turkeys' large size and feathers.

The Albanians call it a sea rooster or sea hen.

Roots of turkey bird

While there are lots of disputes on how the English term for the avian creature made its way into the language, the word "turkey" as a bird was first seen in the mid-1500s.

The English name, symbolized by traditional Thanksgiving food, is thought to be a holdover from shipping routes passing through Turkey on the way to delivering birds to European markets.

The turkey-cocks were mentioned by William Shakespeare in Henry IV, which is believed to have been written no later than 1597.

The Oxford English Dictionary says the earliest use of “turkey-cock” in English dates to the 1540s, while the early European dictionaries like the Nomenclator of Junius of 1606 published in Paris also confirm the use of the term.

We can also find a reference to a turkey on Christmas Day in Charles Dickens’ 1843 novella, A Christmas Carol.

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