Who came first: Turkey or turkey?

The bird we today call a turkey is native to America. Yet, how did it become associated with the country of Turkey?

The answer is that the American wildfowl is not the only bird called a turkey. That, since 1552, is also a name for the guinea-fowl (Numida meleagris). That bird, native to Africa, was brought to Europe via Turkey, imported from Madagascar by Near East traders known as turkey merchants. The Turkish name for it is hindi, lit. “Indian,” probably via M.Fr. dinde (c.1600, contracted from poulet d’inde, lit. “chicken from India,” Mod.Fr. dindon), based on the common misconception that the New World was eastern Asia.  When Europeans arrived in America, they noticed similarities between the guinea-fowl and the American bird (Meleagris gallopavo) and called the latter turkey. So, the name is from the country although the bird is in no way associated with it.

The New World bird itself reputedly reached England by 1524 at the earliest estimate, though a date in the 1530s seems more likely. By 1575, turkey was becoming the usual main course at an English Christmas. The use of ‘turkey’ meaning “inferior show, failure,” came up in 1927 in show business slang, probably from the bird’s reputation for stupidity. Turkey shoot “something easy” is from World War II-era, in reference to marksmanship contests where turkeys were tied behind a log with their heads showing as targets.

But if you want to go deeper in this turkey business, take a look at that:


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