For many a Thanksgiving meal is centered on turkey.  Turkeys are indigenous only to parts of North America and Europeans only first came into contact with turkeys roughly 500 years ago.  So how did turkeys (the bird) end up being named so similarly to Turkey (the country)? 

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.  The birds were brought to England by 1524 and were so wildly popular that the bird was domesticated in England within a decade.   The “turkey” was well ensconced in the English language soon thereafter and even appears in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, believed to be written in 1602. 

But the birds did not come directly from the New World nor from Spain to England.  England and Spain were at war and trade was not exactly free.  It took a third merchant from the eastern Mediterranean to bring these birds to England.   Those merchants were called “Turkey merchants” 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.  The Hebrew term for turkey is טוּרְקִיָה (tarnagol hodu) and literally translates as “chicken of India,” furthering the Elizabethan-era myth that New World explorers had found a route to the Orient and ironically Turkish word for turkey is “hindi.”

So while you are eating those leftovers from the quintessential American fowl, just think, you should be eating a “Massachusetts” or a “Florida” sandwich but instead everyone talks turkey.

Published by Michael Carver

My goal is to bring history alive through interactive portrayal of ordinary American life in the late 18th Century (1750—1799) My persona are: Journeyman Brewer; Cordwainer (leather tradesman but not cobbler), Statesman and Orator; Chandler (candle and soap maker); Gentleman Scientist; and, Soldier in either the British Regular Army, the Centennial Army, or one of the various Militia. Let me help you experience history 1st hand!

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