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  • Writer's pictureIlona Duncan

Why Was the American Thanksgiving Bird Called a Turkey?

A friend recently suggested I share my knowledge of multiple languages and write a weekly blog on one word. On many occasions this friend has heard me mention a word's etymological background and compared its meaning to other languages. Now, I have made a promise to write a blog every fortnight on this subject.

Last Thursday, as I prepared the annual Thanksgiving meal and stuffed the turkey, a question arose in my mind. Why, in the English language, is this bird called a turkey? Could it have anything to do with the land of the Turks? That question led to a discovery that the bird had been misnamed. It turns out that a similar African bird, the crested guinea fowl with dark grey plumage and a black toupé, caused the confusion.

In the 16th century, Portuguese traders brought the guinea fowl to Europe by way of Turkey. Without knowing its real name, the English called the bird a Turkish chicken. A century later in North America, the first English settlers, upon seeing an indigenous bird, thought it was of the same species as their European fowl. They called it turkey.

The Turks, I learned, call this bird hindi, the Turkish name for India. I now understand why the French call it dinde. Add an apostrophe after the ‘d,’ and you have d’inde, meaning from India. But dinde refers to the hen only. As is usual, the French must differentiate between a male, a female, and offspring: the male is a dindon, the young the dindonneaux.

While writing this blog, a Swedish girlfriend happened to call.

“What,” I asked her “do the Swedes called a turkey?”

Kalkon,” she told me.

After we hung up, I wondered if kalkon also had something to with India. Not surprisingly it did. Kalkon, from the Low German kalkünischer Hahn, means rooster from Calicut, anglicized for Kozhikode, a coastal city in Southern India.

However, in modern German, any connection of the word 'turkey' to India was lost. As a native German speaker, I have always known the bird as Truthahn, pronounced tʁuːtˌhaːn. ‘Trut,’ from the Low Middle German drōten, means to threaten, and ‘hahn’ translates into rooster. How odd, I thought. The Germans named the turkey for its aggressive behavior: Truthahn, a threatening rooster.

Guinea fowl, hindi, dinde, kalkon, truthahn! Yet the Thanksgiving bird in my kitchen did not come from Africa, India, or Turkey, was not threatening and turned out to be delicious.

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