A bird by any other name


It’s Thanksgiving here in the US, and with apologies to vegetarians and vegans, and to people who are eating some other kind of meat this evening, this is a holiday that is closely identified with turkey. That’s turkey the bird, not Turkey the country, though of course the former is named for the latter. Which is pretty wild, considering that turkeys are native to North America. Which is obviously not Turkey.

The misnaming of that unfortunate bird up there isn’t a particularly convoluted tale, but if you want to impress and/or irritate everybody at the table this evening then here goes. Europeans back in the Middle Ages were fond of a bird known as the guinea fowl, which is native to Africa. Also not Turkey, I know. But most of the guinea fowl that made it into Europe did so via Muslim merchants, and those merchants were often Turkish or, at least, Turkish-adjacent (Mamluk, for example, or later Ottoman). There are two theories about how this played out. Either our turkey got its name because of is resemblance to the guinea fowl sold in Europe by “Turkish” merchants, or it actually took the circuitous route from Spain (brought back by the conquistadors), across North Africa and the Middle East, and then back into Europe via the same “Turkish” merchants who dealt in guinea fowl. Either way the bird became known, in English at least, as “Turkey fowl” or “Turkey cock” and, later, just “turkey.”

Turkeys are not identified with Turkey in most languages. In fact you will find at least as many languages that connect the bird with India as with Turkey. Don’t ask me why. Maybe because of the whole Columbus thinking he’d sailed to Asia thing. But whatever the reason, in French (dinde), Russian (indyushka), Arabic (dik Hindi), and, yes Turkish (Hindi), among many others, turkeys are considered Indian. In Dutch they’re called kalkoen, from the Indian city of Calcoen, or modern Calicut, and there are a few languages that have adopted that name as well. Other languages are a little more whimsical–Germans call turkeys Truthahn, basically “chickens that make a ‘trut’ sound,” and in Persian they’re called buqalamun, which refers to something that’s multi-colored.

With that, let me take this opportunity to thank you all for coming around here and reading my writing over the past year. I’m so grateful to all of you for helping me to realize that there are people out there who value what I’m doing. We’re on the cusp of attwiw’s annual holiday subscription drive/fundraiser, so let me also say that if you want this site to continue and hopefully grow into something bigger and slicker, please subscribe via the Patreon button below. Even a couple of dollars each month helps and will unlock a lot of extra content for you.

To those who are celebrating, a very Happy Thanksgiving to you and yours from attwiw!


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