The many names of the turkey and why in English it is called ‘Turkey’ as well as the country Turkey

It is a very popular delicacy eaten at Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Years dinners, and its meat is also popular in different ways throughout the year. The turkey or turkey is a bird that was originally domesticated in Mesoamerica, in what is now Mexico, at least 2,000 years ago (the word turkey comes from the Nahuatl word ‘huexolotl’) and was an important part of the diet and festivities of the natives of this region and of what is now the United States.

The turkey, turkey or ‘turkey’ in English, is a bird native to North America and first domesticated in what is now Mexico at least 2,000 years ago. (Getty Creative)

The turkey was introduced to the Old World by the Spanish conquerors, and in the United States, tradition puts the turkey on the table of English settlers and Native Americans who originated the feast of Thanksgiving. In Mexico, turkey (also called turkey, totole, guanajo, chompipe, or gallipavo, among other names in Spanish-speaking countries) has always been a food of importance and tradition.

Turkey is also a popular food in today’s American cuisine. Thus, a singular question arises: why is the turkey called “turkey” in English, Turkey being the English name of the country which in Spanish is known as Turkey?

Jack Lynch, professor of English at Rutgers University, answers this question in an article for The Conversation.

Lynch says turkeys arrived in Europe and Asia in the early 16th century, brought to Spain from America by conquerors, and in some years were widely eaten at the tables of the rich and powerful in the Old World. . In Spain, they were called turkeys, because it was believed that they had a relationship with so-called birds (peacocks, for example, native to Asia), although turkeys and turkeys are of different genders (meleagristurkey and TurkeyTurkey).

A recreation of the traditional first Thanksgiving dinner, which is said to have taken place.  in 1621 on the plantation of Plymouth, Massachusetts, among English settlers and Native Americans.  The turkey was part of the meal for this occasion.  (Getty Pictures)

A recreation of the first traditional Thanksgiving dinner, said to have taken place in 1621 on the Plymouth, Massachusetts, plantation among English settlers and Native Americans. Turkey was part of the meal on this occasion. (Getty Pictures)

In France, says Lynch, the turkey was called “hen of India”, which ended up being simplified to “dinde”. True, the turkey is not a chicken nor is it from India, although the Caribbean islands are called the West Indies (well, Christopher Columbus always believed he had reached the Indies and never knew that he had in fact arrived on another continent).

And to the English of the time, turkeys resembled redfish or guinea fowl, introduced years ago to Europe by Arab and Turkish traders. So the English called turkeys ‘turkey-cock’ or ‘turkey-hen’ (something like the turkey cock or hen), because for Western Europeans of those centuries many new or exotic objects and products they came from the east or via the east they were identified as Turks, due to the fact that the Turkish (Ottoman) Empire was then the dominant power in the eastern Mediterranean and the Middle East.

The modern Republic of Turkey is the heir nation of this ancient empire after its dissolution at the end of the First World War.

Baked turkey is a central part of Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year's dinners. (Getty Creative)

Baked turkey is a central part of Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s dinners. (Getty Creative)

Turkey is therefore an English word used both for the country of Turkey and for turkey and Lynch points out that the first use of turkey in allusion to the aforementioned bird appears in accounts of a banquet given by the English politician in 1555 John Prideaux. Then, around 1621, the first celebration of Thanksgiving is said to have taken place with the gathering of settlers and Indians in Plymouth, Massachusetts.

According to Lynch, Plymouth Plantation Governor William Bradford wrote impressed with the large numbers of “wild turkeys” (presumably feral turkeys) that Native Americans in that area had.

Well, Thanksgiving Day has also been called “Turkey Day” in the United States and the word turkey has taken on other meanings. Lynch mentions that it is called “cold turkey” to the fact of drastically stopping the consumption of an addictive substance and without substitutes or palliatives and that in the world of entertainment a show of poor quality has been called turkey and also a film which it did not achieve critical or box office success. And in some popular jargons, the word turkey has also been used to refer to an “insincere, deceitful, dishonest” person.

And, with a curious multiplicity of meanings, Lynch explains that in English, we say that when someone engages in a “talk turkey”, it is that he is talking nonsense, that he is expressing himself in a unnecessarily pompous or, also, that he speaks in a direct and sincere manner.

A traditional dish from the Mexican city of Puebla: mole de guajolote.  (Getty Creative)

A traditional dish from the Mexican city of Puebla: mole de guajolote. (Getty Creative)

None of this has to do with the Republic of Turkey and in Spanish to name the delicious bird alluded to, the word guajolote comes from the Nahuatl huexolotl, although turkey and other words mentioned are also used for name this big bird.

This bird should not be confused with the guajolota, which is a tamale cake, and when deciding what irreverent dish to prepare with turkey for these holidays, one can remember the playful final cry of the Estridentist Manifesto, a Mexican poetic movement single from the 1920s: “Long live the mole turkey!”

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