A Staff Report from the Straight Dope Science Advisory Board

Is turkey (the bird) named after Turkey (the country) or vice versa?

November 27, 2001

Dear Straight Dope:

With the recent earthquake in Turkey, I started to think about the fact that there's a bird and a country named the same thing. How did each get its name? And are there any other countries named the same as animals or food? Is there a place named Chicken?

Here's all I know for sure: Despite several crackpot theories to the contrary, the bird was named after the country, but in a very roundabout way so that the details are uncertain. Oh, one other thing I know for sure: No European should ever have been allowed to name any New World species. The Aztecs, who kept domesticated turkeys for hundreds of years before the Europeans arrived, had a perfectly good word for the bird in their Nahuatl language: xuehxolotl, which, of course, is pronounced. Don't ask me how it's pronounced, but I'm sure it can be done. If the Europeans had been smart enough to stick with the original name, there would have been no need for me to write this Staff Report, and on Thanksgiving we'd sit down to "xuehxolotl with all the trimmings."  Oh, the things that might have been.

First let's talk about the country. Turkey was named for the Turks, believe it or not. Turk can mean either "a citizen of the modern state of Turkey" or more broadly, "an individual of the Turkic-speaking people." The many Turkic languages are spoken not only in Turkey but also in a large area of central Asia and in northern Siberia. The real question is the origin of the name Turk. The word is essentially the same in many languages, including English, Turkish, Arabic, and Persian (Farsi). It probably comes from some Turkish root, but there's no consensus on which one. It may be one root meaning "strong" or "vigorous" (according to the American Heritage Dictionary) or it may be another meaning "the people" (according to the Encyclopedia Americana).

There are a couple of other theories of how the country got its name, both wrong. The first has it that the country was named after the first leader of the Turkish Republic, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. But like most Turks, Mustafa didn't have any surname at all until 1934, when he chose Atatürk ("Father of the Turks") for himself. He had already given the country its western-influenced name Türkiye several years earlier. During the period of the empire, the Turkish name for the country had nothing to do with the Turks. Rather, it was named for the Osman (Ottoman) dynasty that ruled it. Another theory has it that the English named the country after the bird, as a taunt. But the country was already called "Turki" or "Turkeye" in English by 1275, hundreds of years before the bird was known in the Old World. Now I'll give you the bird. It's likely the first bird called "turkey" in English wasn't the familiar Thanksgiving fowl (Meleagris gallopavo), but a smaller domesticated bird originally from sub-Saharan Africa: (Numida meleagris), which we now call the Guinea fowl. This bird was introduced to the Mediterranean in ancient times and was known (as a rarity) to the Greeks and Romans. It was named after the mythical Meliagrides, who were the sisters of Meleager and who were turned to birds after his death. This bird seems to have disappeared from Europe and was reintroduced from west Africa by Portuguese traders at the end of the fifteenth century. If this bird was from Africa, why was it called "turkey" in English? Probably because it was introduced to England by so-called "Turkey merchants" who traded with the Mediterranean region, including the Ottoman Empire (which then controlled the eastern third of that sea). A similar confusion caused another New World species, maize or corn (Zea mays), to be called "Turkey wheat" or "Turkey corn" in England.

M. gallopavo was introduced to Spain from America sometime between 1498 and 1526 (but most likely before 1511), and thence to England sometime between 1520 and 1541 (but probably before 1530). It too was named "turkey" in English, perhaps because it was confused with N. meleagris, or because it was likewise introduced by Turkey merchants. In citations from the Oxford English Dictionary, "turkey" dates from 1541, but it is unclear which species is meant. Among unambiguous citations, the N. meleagris meaning of "turkey" beats out the M. gallopavo meaning by only three years (1552 vs. 1555). The OED doesn't say so but according to Schorger, the word has also been used to describe other birds the males of which use tail displays, such as the peacock. It is even possible that "peacock" was the original meaning of the word in English, but that seems unlikely. For the same reason, the capercaillie (a kind of grouse) has sometimes been called a peacock (pavo) in Latin as well as "turkey" in English.

There are other theories of how the bird got its name. John Smith (of Pocahontas fame) is sometimes given credit for naming the birds he saw in Virginia "turkey," having confused them with the Guinea fowl. But as we have already seen, both birds were established in England decades before Smith was born in 1580. Another story is that the bird was named after its caruncle (wattle), which is sometimes blue, the color of Turkey stone (turquoise). Okay, but just because you like "Turkey in the Straw" doesn't mean you have to grasp at straws trying to explain the name.

Another story is that Christopher Columbus named it tuka, after the Tamil word for "peacock." (He may or may not have been the first European to see a real turkey; the credit sometimes goes to Pedro Alonso Niño or Vincente Yáñez Pinzón, but it's less certain that the birds they saw in earlier years were really turkeys). It's hard to imagine why Chris would choose a Tamil word when Spanish already had a perfectly suitable word for the domesticated peacock, which was not at all uncommon in Europe at that time. But in fact he named the bird he saw in Honduras in 1502 not tuka, but rather gallina de la tierra ("ground chicken").

But the peacock theory isn't entirely fantasy. In the early days, there were dozens of different names for the turkey in Spanish, but the one that finally caught on was pavo, which originally did refer to the peacock. To differentiate it from the turkey, the peacock is now called pavo real in Spanish (which could be translated "royal turkey," and coincidentally this is exactly what I call my brother-in-law). The two birds may not look very much alike to us, but the association isn't completely unfounded:

  • They act the same. The males of both the peafowl and the turkey spread their tail feathers in mating displays, though the turkey's display is much less impressive.
  • They sound the same. Both of them have unpleasant calls, a fact noted by the writer Motolinía who visited Mexico in the sixteenth century.
  • They taste the same according to at least three early reports, including that of Columbus.

In addition, there is a related species found in Central America, the ocellated turkey (Meleagris ocellata, also called Agriocharis ocellata), which resembles a peacock in having eye spots on its tail feathers. It may have been this bird that the earliest Spanish explorers saw, or it may have been any of several other birds of the region that have been confused with the peacock. This confusion is a big part of the uncertainty of exactly when M. gallopavo was introduced to Spain.

English is not the only language that incorrectly associates the turkey with Turkey. Welsh borrowed the English usage and calls the bird twrki. But it is interesting that many other languages incorrectly associate the bird with other countries. In many languages (including Turkish and French), the bird is called by names indicating it's from India. This may derive from the confusion between the East Indies and West Indies that was rampant in those days. In fact, one of the early Spanish names, gallina de las Indias, means "hen of the Indies." But other languages (such as Dutch and Danish) are strangely specific in calling the bird by names indicating the bird is from the Indian city of Calicut. At that time, Calicut was the most important city for the trade between Europe and India. So it would not have been unreasonable for Western Europeans to assume that anything exotic came from Calicut, or more generally, from India. Incidentally, "calico cloth" is also named after Calicut.

In Portuguese, the bird is called peru, despite the fact that the bird was not introduced to Peru until after the Spanish conquest. The most reasonable explanation for the association is that the bird became popular in Portugal shortly after Pizarro conquered Peru in 1532, and the Portuguese made a natural assumption. In Brazilian slang, peru can also means "penis," which must make life interesting along the Brazil-Peru border. One word for the bird in one of the several dialects of Hindi is also peru or piru, which is probably borrowed from Portuguese. That makes sense, since the turkey was introduced to India by the Portuguese (sometime before 1612). Another suggestion, discounted by Portuguese etymologists, is that Portuguese and Hindi both borrowed the word from a Tamil source. Tamil again? It's hard to understand the fascination Tamil holds for the inventors of false etymologies. Maybe they figure most of us can't speak it and so will believe almost anything about it. In case you were wondering, in Tamil the bird is called by names meaning "sky chicken" or "foreign chicken," but neither name looks anything like tuka or peru.

Lest you think the scientific name of the turkey makes more sense than the common ones, it is my duty to inform you that it is perhaps even more messed up. Meleagris gallopavo is composed of the names of three different birds, none of them the turkey. Meleagris was the ancient Greek name of the Guinea fowl (mentioned above). For hundreds of years, European naturalists believed the turkey was a kind of Guinea fowl, for reasons that are not entirely clear. Gallopavo was one of the early Spanish names for the turkey (often spelled gallipavo). Gallo- comes from gallus, the Latin word for the common barnyard fowl (chicken), Gallus domesticus. And -pavo comes from Latin word for the blue peacock, whose scientific name is Pavo cristatus. The Spanish apparently gave it that name because the bird combined several traits of the two birds. Some later naturalists took the name too literally and assumed the turkey was a hybrid of a peacock and a chicken or of a rooster and a peahen.

Other foods that share names with countries? Well, there's chili or chile (as in pepper) but it's not etymologically related to the name of the country Chile. Guinea is an obsolete shortened form of the edible "Guinea fowl" (mentioned above). And from the Brazil nut tree (named after the country) we get brazils (or Brazil nuts).

If you'll accept geographical features smaller than nations, you can make a whole meal out of places. You could have a Bologna and Cheddar Sandwich with Dijon, and a cup of Java to wash it down. You could even serve it on fine China. And since you asked, there is a place called Chicken, Alaska (pop. 17). There's also an airport in California called Chicken Strip. No word on whether it's tender, juicy, and golden-brown. I could continue in the same silly vein, but that would be beneath the dignity of the Straight Dope. I'm not Ghana do it.

Aw, who am I kidding?

Oman, all this talk of food is making me Hungary. Iran over as soon as I smelled your cooking. Jamaica nuff for me? Why, yes, I would like some coffee. Just one Cuba sugar, though. You're out of cream? Why don't you just milk Macao to get Samoa? Bring me some booze instead. Lots of it, because I really want to Taiwan on. This is what you call food? It's nothing but Greece. Waiter, Czech please!

Suggested reading: The Wild Turkey: Its History and Domestication by A. W. Schorger

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