You turkey!

by Mellissa Martinez

On the day after Thanksgiving, people often find themselves stuck within the orbit of the refrigerator. Most of us return throughout the day to procure a piece or two of cold turkey. There is something about the unprepared meal that tastes just as good as it did the night before (or maybe even better). It is this undeniable fact that led to the English expression ‘cold turkey.’

Given that the meat could be served with no provision, the term ‘cold turkey’ became synonymous with ‘without preparation.’ In the early- to mid-1900s, ‘to quit like cold turkey’ meant to cease a bad habit (initially heroin) suddenly and without preparation. This is just one way in which the turkey has infiltrated our language. The word also pops up in expressions like talk turkey, jive turkey and turkey shoot. It can also be used to emphasize nothing, as in I don’t know turkey about computer programming!

Turkey shoot, or ‘something very easy,’ emerged from the disturbing WWII practice of holding marksmanship contests where turkeys were tied behind a log with their heads sticking up as targets. ‘Jive turkey,’ an expression from the 1970s, is a variation of ‘jive ass.’ ‘Jive’ was a popular expression in the African-American vernacular of New York City in the late 1930s, meaning ‘not acting right’ or ‘playfully deceiving.’

The meaning of ‘talk turkey’ has changed over time.  In the early 1800s, it meant speak agreeably or pleasantly, while now it generally means to talk frankly or get down to serious business. One source suggests that the change happened in the late 1900s when people added cold, saying ‘talk cold turkey’ (without preparation). Once the cold was later dropped, the expression maintained a serious edge.

There are different stories that explain the origin of ‘talk turkey.’ Some suggest that it comes from the exchange of pleasantries over Thanksgiving or Christmas turkey. Another cites a tale in which a Yankee attempted to swindle a Native American while dividing up a turkey and a buzzard after a hunt. The settler offered the buzzard freely, but the wise Native American responded with something akin to hold on a minute there, let’s talk turkey.

Once a candidate for our national bird, the turkey was named after the country of Turkey by accident. When turkey was imported to England from the Americas in the 1520s, Europeans mistook it for the Guinea fowl, which is native to eastern Africa. This bird had been imported to Europe through the Ottoman Empire and hence called the Turkey-hen. Given that the American bird closely resembled the African bird, Europeans assumed they were one and the same and called it a turkey. After the two birds were distinguished, turkey was retained for the American bird, instead of the African.

At a certain point in American history, the turkey earned a reputation for being stupid. As it turns out, there is room for interpretation on this fact. They may seem stupid because of their widely spaced eyes, wobbly walk or their habit of staring into the sky for long periods of time (even in the pouring rain). It turns out that the long stares off into space are a genetically inherited behavior and not at all harmful to the bird. Also, their constant head tilting comes from the fact that they have monocular vision. In reality, they aren’t that dumb, they are just trying to get a better look.

Even if unfairly assigned, the notion of stupidity has followed them into language. In the early 1900s, a ‘turkey’ was an inferior TV show or a failing play. Since the early 1950s, ‘turkey’ alone has long meant a ‘stupid, ineffectual person.’ As for me, I can never hear the word turkey without thinking of the former Claremont High School ceramics assistant, Pat Fiddes, who used to stride across the classroom in her tennis shorts regularly targeting any teen who had broken the rules, “YOU TURKEY!” We all laughed or scattered in fear that she might grab us with her clay-covered hand and make us pay for throwing clay or not cleaning our wheels. Even now, I can’t think of those times without smiling and, no doubt, a few other turkeys do too.

Given that black Friday is all the rage these days, especially among retailers, I wonder if some years from now the expression black turkey will come into vogue and what it might mean—one of those guys that’s been camped in line for three days just to get ahead in spending his money? Any other suggestions? I’d be happy to hear them.


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