The republic of Turkey (look north of Egypt, east of Greece) isn’t exactly a breeding ground for the bird that Americans associate with Thanksgiving. In fact, the turkey is native to North America – so why do they share the same name?
Let’s get the facts on the two turkeys. The word turkey has been used to refer to “land occupied by the Turks” since the 1300s and was even used by Chaucer in The Book of the Duchess. The word Turk is of unknown origin, but it’s used in such varying languages as Italian, Arabic, Persian, and many others to refer to people from this region. The land occupied by the Turks was known as the Ottoman Empire from the 1300s until 1922, but following World War I and the fall of the Ottomans, the republic of Turkey was declared, taking on the name that had long referred to that region. As for the turkey with wings, Meleagris gallopavo is an odd-looking bird that’s known for its bare head, wattle, and iridescent plumage.
So how did the land occupied by the Turks become associated with a North American bird? First, we have to get to know another bird: the guinea fowl. This bird bears some resemblance to the American bird. Though it’s native to eastern Africa, the guinea fowl was imported to Europe through the Ottoman Empire and came to be called the turkey-cock or turkey-hen. When settlers in the New World began to send similar-looking fowl back to Europe, they were mistakenly called turkeys.
Every language seems to have radically different names for this bird. The Turkish word is hindi, which literally means “Indian.” The original word in French, coq d’Inde, meant rooster of India, and has since shortened to dinde. These names likely derive from the common misconception that India and the New World were one and the same. In Portuguese, it’s literally a “Peru bird,” and in Malay, it’s called a “Dutch chicken.”
The turkey’s acceptance into the Old World happened quickly. By 1575, the English were enjoying the North American bird at Christmas dinner, and Shakespeare talked about it in Henry IV. Turkeys, as we know them, have fared better than their guinea fowl relatives on the international scene, so you probably haven’t seen it at your local grocery store. But the next time you think about turkey, you can nod to guinea fowls for their Turkish associations.
The previous explanation of this term and its history was a bit confusing, as some commenters noted. We hope recent revisions have helped to clarify the fascinating story of this word.