Every November, many American families gather around the table, feasting on a Thanksgiving meal—the centerpiece of which is a turkey. It’s a celebration of many things but historically stems back to 1621, when European settlers (“Pilgrims,” as American elementary school children will surely tell you) marked the harvest with a similar celebration.
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 the turkey (the bird) end up with the same name as 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 Hernán Cortés’s expedition in Mexico in 1519. Spanish Conquistadors brought this new delicacy back to Europe and by 1524 it had reached England. The bird was domesticated in England within a decade, and by the turn of the century, its name—“turkey”—had entered the English language. Case in point:
William Shakespeare used the term in Twelfth Night, believed to have been 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 merchants” as much of 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.” To this day, we’re simply carrying on the mistake of a few confused English-speaking Europeans.
But 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 widespread that it makes a mockery of the historical basis for the term “turkey” in English. Why? Because the Turkish word for turkey isn’t “turkey.” It’s “hindi.”
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.
Excerpted from Now I Know Copyright © 2013 by Dan Lewis and published by F+W Media, Inc. Used by permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.