• turkey •
Pronunciation: têr-kee • Hear it!
Part of Speech: Noun
Meaning: 1. A large domestic food bird with a fan tail and a head and neck covered with a mass of bare skin, a favorite main course in the US on Thanksgiving and Christmas. 2. A stupid person. 3. A very bad piece of performance art, such as a play, movie, or symphony. 4. (Oldish) Nothing, not a word, diddledy, squat: "She never said turkey to me about it."
Notes: Animals often get bad raps from the words we use: squirrelly, hare-brained, catty, piggy—all reflect human prejudices about animals that we interact with. A widely held fallacy is that turkeys look up at the sky with their beaks open during rainstorms and drown as a result. This misconception led to the conclusion that turkeys are stupid birds, hence the second and third meanings of today's holiday word.
In Play: We have now examined the word for the sound turkeys make, gobble, and the concept it contributed to, gobbledygook; it is time to look at the name of the animal itself. In addition to stupidity, turkeys are associated with plain speaking, as in "to talk turkey", but also in doing anything plainly, as in "to quit smoking cold turkey". For more about these phrases, read Dr. Goodword's Language Blog.
Word History: When Europeans began consuming exotic birds, they had problems keeping up with where they came from. These ancestors initially thought that guinea fowl came from Turkey, so they first called guinea fowl turkey-hens and turkey-cocks. Once the origin of the guinea fowl was correctly ascertained, the names turkey-hen and turkey-cock were left over, so they were transferred to what we call turkeys today. Thus, turkey comes from the name of the land of the Turk via two mistakes. But the English were not the only ones to mistake the origin of turkeys. Other Europeans came to the conclusion that turkeys came from India, hence the Russian name indushka, Polish indyk, and French dinde from coq d'Inde "bird of India". In Portuguese a turkey is called a peru!