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Monday, November 25, 2013

How Turkey Got Its Name

From the always interesting Now I Know*:

This week, many American families will gather around the lunch or (and?) dinner table, feasting on a Thanksgiving meal centered on turkey. It’s a celebration of many things, but historically, stems back to 1621, when European settlers (“Pilgrims,” as any American elementary school children will surely tell you) marked the harvest by having a similar meal.

Turkeys are indigenous 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 turkeys (the bird) end up being named so similarly to Turkey (the country)? Let’s follow that bird’s history from the New World to the Old.

As far as we can tell, the first European explorers to discover (and eat) turkey were those in Hernan Cortez’s expedition in Mexico in 1519. This new delicacy was brought back to Europe by Spanish Conquistadors and by 1524, had reached England. The bird was domesticated in England within a decade, and by the turn of the century, it’s name — “turkey” — had entered the English language. Case in point: William Shakespeare used the term in Twelfth Night, believed to be written in 1601 or 1602. The lack of context around his usage suggests that the term had widespread reach.

But the birds did not come directly from the New World to England; rather, they came via merchant ships from the eastern Mediterranean Sea. Those merchants were called “Turkey merchant” as much the area was part of the Turkish Empire at the time. Purchasers of the birds back home in England thought the fowl came from the area, hence the name “Turkey birds” or, soon thereafter, “turkeys.”

Not all languages follow this misconception. Others, such as 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. This nomenclature for the bird is so wide-spread that it self-defeats the historical basis for the term “turkey” in English, as the Turkish word for turkey is “hindi.”

Bonus fact: As for Turkey, the country? The story isn’t as interesting. The word Turkey — actually, Türkiye in Turkish — can be broken up into two parts. “Türk” is a reference to people, potentially meaning “human beings” in an archaic version of the Turkish language. The “-iye” suffix most likely meant “land of.”

Related: Apparently, you can buy turkey on Amazon.

*Dan Lewis has published a book: Now I Know: The Revealing Stories Behind the World's Most Interesting Facts. Now I Know has been coming out as a daily email since 2010, and I've been on that list since close to the beginning; I've used articles from there several times.  I picked up the book on Amazon last week to be used as a Christmas present - unfortunately I started reading it and now don't want to part with it, so I plan to by a couple more as presents. Want further recommendations?  Every single review on Amazon is 5 stars.


  1. It is not possible for the bird to have gotten its name by being introduced to England from the country of Turkey. In the 1600's there was no such thing. There was the Ottoman Empire, which was ruled by the Ottoman Turks, but the country of Turkey did not come into existence until the 1900's

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