This week, America will feast on a Thanksgiving meal, which nearly always includes a turkey. Historically the celebration dates back to 1621, when European settlers in New England marked the harvest by having a similar meal.
The centerpiece is the roast turkey. Turkeys are native to the United States and Mexico; in fact, Europeans only first came into contact with turkeys roughly 500 years ago, upon discovery of the New World. So how did the bird turkeys end up with a name like the country Turkey?
Turkeys were domesticated in Mexico. The Aztecs, for example, had a name for the turkey, wueh-xōlō-tl (guajolote in Spanish), a word still used in modern Mexico in addition to the general term pavo.
There are quite a few theories for the derivation of the name “turkey”.
One theory is that when Europeans first encountered turkeys in America, they incorrectly identified the birds as a type of guineafowl, which were already being imported into Europe by Turkey merchants via Constantinople and were therefore nicknamed Turkey coqs. The name of the North American bird thus became “turkey fowl” or “Indian turkeys”, which was then shortened to just “turkeys”.
A second theory arises from turkeys coming to England not directly from the Americas, but via merchant ships from the Middle East, where they were domesticated successfully. Again the importers lent the name to the bird; Middle Eastern merchants were called “Turkey merchants” as much of that area was part of the Ottoman Empire. Hence the name “Turkey-cocks” and “Turkey-hens”, and soon thereafter, “turkeys”.
Dan Jurafsky, another linguist, has a third theory. He 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.
Turkey in other languages is confused as well. Hebrew get the origin just as wrong, but in the other direction. The Hebrew term for turkey, transliterated as tarnagol hodu, literally translates to “chicken of India,” furthering the Elizabethan-era myth that New World explorers had found a route to the Orient. 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.” Other languages make the same mistake. 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 like Polish and Catalan.
So what is it called in India? 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 may 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”).
The turkey’s scientific name doesn’t make much more sense than its popular one. Meleagris gallopavo, is the scientific name and it is just as weird. 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.
In the end a uniquely American name might be the most accurate. The Blackfoot term is omahksipi’kssii, which literally means “big bird.”
So end up as part of your Thanksgiving tradition, turkeys took a rather long trip from Mexico, to Europe, to the Middle East, to England, back to America to the United States and finally onto our table.