Photograph by Raymond Gehman, Nat Geo Image Collection
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Male wild turkey (Melleagris gallopavo) with feathers extended for mating ritual, Francis Beidler Forest, S.C.
Photograph by Raymond Gehman, Nat Geo Image Collection

Fowl Play? The Twisted Linguistics of Turkey

As Americans prepare to sit down for a national day of feasting Thursday, what some of us may be wondering is, why is our Thanksgiving bird named after a Middle Eastern nation?

Blame it on the Portuguese.

But just to show that we’re almost all in the same muddled linguistic boat, their word for turkey is peru.

Let’s start at the beginning. There are six sub-species of turkeys worldwide, all native to North America. The star of the feast at American Thanksgiving dinners is Meleagris gallopavo gallopavo, which comes from Mexico, and was domesticated there possibly as early as 800 BCE. By the time Columbus arrived, the Aztecs were raising and eating turkeys by the tens of thousands, and had even incorporated them into their mythology. One aspect of Tezcatlipoca, the Aztec trickster god, was a jeweled turkey.

The Spaniards began shipping turkeys home from Central America in the early 1500s, and by mid-century, they were strutting around barnyards in Italy, Germany, France, England, and Scandinavia. The Spaniards, who weren’t sure what they were, called them gallinas de la tierra (local chickens) or, descriptively, gallopavos (chicken-peacocks), since there was clearly more to turkeys than just chicken.

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Depictions of Tezcatlipoca, the Aztec god who is sometimes shown as a turkey, on the Tizoc stone found in Tenochtitlan. Photograph by DeAgostini/Getty Images

In Europe, according to linguist Dan Jurafsky, the turkey was promptly confused with an earlier import, the guinea fowl. The chicken-sized guinea fowl hails from sub-Saharan Africa. The Egyptians were importing them from the Sudan and points south by 2400 BCE—guinea fowl were popular enough in Egypt to appear on pyramid murals—and they were common in Greece by 400 BCE. In Greece, the bird was known as meleagris, from the hero Meleager, whose sobbing, black-clad sisters, following his tragic death, were supposedly transformed by the goddess Artemis into screeching black birds spotted with white tears.

Guinea fowl reached Europe by the 15th century, delivered via the eastern spice trade routes. From their presumed source of origin, they were variously known as India chickens, Turkey chickens, Turkey cocks, and Calicut hens—names which were promptly and promiscuously applied to the vaguely look-alike American turkey.

Then the Portuguese stirred the pot.

The Portuguese had famously forged a sea route to India in 1497, when Vasco da Gama successfully managed to sail around Africa. By the early 1500s, they were importing spices from Calicut in Kerala, a major Indian spice and textile center, along with ivory, gold, and guinea fowl from their colonies along the African coast. They also picked up turkeys, corn, and chili peppers from the Spanish in the Americas.

Determined to keep an iron grip on their trade monopolies, the paranoid Portuguese were deliberately cagey about where any of their goods came from. Portuguese maps and nautical charts were strictly censored; Portuguese navigators were required by the crown to swear an oath of silence. Those who broke the oath and spilled the beans to outsiders were executed. Thus Portuguese goods, by the time they arrived in Europe, could have come from anywhere, and the Portuguese certainly weren’t telling.

American turkeys and African guinea fowl, victims of Portuguese vagary, became inextricably mixed. Today the geographically garbled turkey is known as dinde (from poule d’Inde or chicken of India) in France, kalkoen (from Calicut hen) in the Netherlands, and indjushka (Indian bird) in Russia. The Turks, who knew it didn’t come from Turkey, called it hindi (from India). In Levantine Arabic, it’s known as dik habash (Ethiopian bird); in Malaya, ayam belanda (Dutch chicken); and in Cambodia, moan barang (French chicken). The Albanians, who hedged their bets, call it gjel deti (sea rooster).

The European colonists, who called them turkeys, brought turkeys with them to North America: the much-displaced birds arrived in Jamestown in 1607 and in Massachusetts Bay in 1629. The domesticated imports seem to have compared unfavorably to the native wild turkeys, which were, wrote Massachusetts minister Thomas Higginson in 1630, “farre greater than our English Turkies, and exceeding fat, sweet, and fleshy.”

The multi-century game of gossip that gave us the now-established name turkey even defeated Swedish biologist Carl Linneaus, the inventor of binomial nomenclature, sometimes known as the Father of Taxonomy. He dubbed the all-American bird Melagris gallopavo, a scientific mush of guinea fowl, chicken, and peacock.

The Nahuatl (Aztec) word for turkey is huehxolotl.

Maybe we should have gone for that.

Meanwhile, if you’re wondering how nutritious your turkey is, or how much environmental impact it has, check out our video team’s Thanksgiving offering.

Turkey Dinner: Good For You, Bad For the Planet?