Dr. Goodword’s Language Blog

Archive for November, 2008

Let’s Talk Turkey about Turkeys

Wednesday, November 26th, 2008

Gobble, gobble, gobble, degook!English has two expressions referring to turkeys that seem unrelated. To talk turkey means to get down to serious straighforward talking while cold turkey is a term usually applied to withdrawing directly from an addiction: to kick a drug habit cold turkey or give up smoking cold turkey.
We are not suffering from a lack of explanations. One goes back to colonial times when Indians often brought turkeys to the original settlers on the East Coast. Since the turkey was often the coin of trade, “talking turkey” could have meant getting down to serious negotiations. We have no evidence of that.

Michael Quinion picks upon the Oxford English Dictionary’s claim that the phrase at one time meant “to talk agreeably or affably, to say pleasant things”, suggesting that this sense arose around the Thanksgiving table, where turkey has been the central fare for some time in the US. (The phrase definitely came from the US.) The examples of this meaning that I can find are not convincing and Quinion doesn’t provide any.

I am going to suggest another possibility. The OED claims that one of the meanings of this phrase was at one time “to talk in high-flown language”. This makes sense since turkeys strut, their feathers puffed out and their tail feathers fanned like a peacock’s, when they gobble. The OED found at least one example suggesting this meaning from John Beedle’s Sleigh Ride, Courtship and Marriage, a novel by William McClintock published in 1841: “I was plaguy apt to talk turkey always when I got sociable, if it was only out of politeness.”

While high-flown language is looked on disparagingly in the US, it is usually reserved for serious situations rather than affable ones. “Seriously” seems to be the meaning of the phrase in this line from A Little Bit of Tid-Re-I, II, published in 1824: “So that, all things considered, I hope neither the Indian, whom the Yankey could not cheat in the division of their game (a turkey and a buzzard,)..will accuse me of not talking Turkey to them in this article.”

The 1903 issue of Dialect Notes II has an entry: “Talk turkey, v. phr., to talk plainly: ‘I’m going to talk turkey with him and see if I can’t get him to mend his ways.'” The American preference for straightforwardness in serious discussions could have pulled the meaning of this word in the direction of “plainness” but something else happened at about the same time that makes this even more likely.

Early in 20th century this talking turkey was sometimes extended to talking cold turkey. This expression clearly meant “talking plainly but very seriously”. Cold implies the status of people and machines before they are warmed up, right after starting, and fits the sense of plainly, i.e. without preparation, rehearsal or warming up. The January 4, 1928 issue of The Daily Express (11/5) contained the following sentence: “She talked cold turkey about sex.”

Now, even though the OED’s examples seem to reverse the chronology, I am suggesting talk cold turkey in the sense of “talk plainly and very seriously” became simply talk turkey, not vice versa. We should not depend too heavily on published sources here. Talk cold turkey may well have preceded talk turkey in the sense of “plainly and seriously” in speech but took more time finding its way into print.

The interesting aspect of the extended phrase, talk cold turkey in the sense of “plainness”, is that the other mysterious turkey phrase is cold turkey. Quinion says that this sense is unrelated to the first; but is it?

If cold turkey meant “plainly and very seriously” at the turn of the century, could it not easily have migrated to the sense of kicking a drug habit plainly and very seriously, which is to say, without help, intervention, or preparation? It would have been strongly influenced by the phrase cold sweats, a state which often accompanies withdrawing from an addiction. I think this history makes eminent sense and is supported by evidence, however scant it may be in spots.

A side note: turkey also meant  “nothing, not a word, diddledy, squat”, toward the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century as we see in this sentence: “You never said turkey to me about leaving.” This meaning no doubt derived directly from the phrase talk turkey. If you talk turkey, turkey is what you talk, i.e. words.

Gloria in excelsior wood shavings

Tuesday, November 18th, 2008

Susan Kappel raised an interesting question today: Why is the motto of the state of New York “wood-shavings”? The point is, the motto and only word in Latin on the Great Seal of New York is Excelsior. The packing material state?

Well, no; excelsior is actually the comparative degree of the Latin word excelsus “high”, hence it means “higher”. The superlative is excelsis, as in Gloria in excelsis Deo “Glory to God in the highest”. As Susan very aptly put it: “For packing material it’s a pretty grandiose name!”

The now common noun excelsior was not always a common noun. It originated as a proper noun, the name of the American Excelsior Company, which began manufacturing the curly wood shavings for packing frangible products in 1888. It is still the world’s largest manufacturer of this product but also produces a complete line of packaging materials in addition to being the eponym of excelsior.

Like Kleenex, escalator, and aspirin, American Excelsior’s product dominated the field to the point that referring to it simply as excelsior led to the commonization of the word. Unlike Kimberly-Clarke, who legally convinced publishers to switch to “tissue”, American Excelsior apparently has no complaints over integrating its name into ordinary English since it uses the word excelsior in lower case letters on its website.


Monday, November 17th, 2008

The closing days of the recent presidential election in the US saw the odd emergence of words referring to old ideologies of centuries past: socialism, communism, and capitalism. Now that the Soviet Union has collapsed and abandoned its bizarre ideology of coerced socialism and China has mollified their version of it without collapsing, the US may be the last country that continues to harm to itself in the avoidance of 18th and 19th century ideologies.

An ideology is a set of doctrines or beliefs about the correct way in which a society should run and people should behave. Ideologies may be rigid or flexible but we have seen that those that have remained rigid tend to fail. This happened with both the rigid socialism and capitalism of the 20th century.

The US has looked at the world as a battleground of ideologies since World War II: democracy against dictatorship, capitalism against socialism. European nations have long since abandoned the fear of these ideologies, more and more ignoring them. Other nations have created societies intended to generate the greatest benefit for all, blending the workable bits and pieces of any ideology.  The result has been the fall into irrelevance of the ideologies themselves.

One of the hopes President-elect Obama brings with him is that the US will cease to harm itself out of fear for words referring to anachronistic ideologies.  The sound of these words thumping to the ground during the closing days of the campaign is a promising prelude to clear, intelligent policy based on good ideas rather than fear of now empty words referring to ideologies intended for social conditions of the 19th-century.

Caducity and the Caduceus

Monday, November 10th, 2008

Jackies Strauss raised an interesting question after reading our recent Good Word caducity:

“You didn’t mention it, but is there a connection between the word caducity, and caduceus, the symbol for healing or physician?”

CaduceusI think the answers are “no” and “yes”. These two words are not related in that they do not have roots (cad-) that share the same source. Latin caduceus is a strange corruption of Greek dialectal karukeion “herald’s staff”, from karux “herald”. (Hermes was also a herald.) This leaves us with the question of how did such a major corruption come about? Latin C transliterated Greek K but D was not a usual transliteration of R.

Well, here caducus “falling, caducous” might have been influential. Since this word refers to falling in the sense of falling in battle and the falling of leaves, it might have influenced the transfiguration of karukeion in its journey to Latin. But the relationship would be influence, not shared origin.

An interesting sidenote if you don’t already know it: The caduceus was aAsclepius's Rod staff carried by Hermes, who was the protector of liars and thieves, as well as a herald. It became the symbol of the medical profession in the US as the result of confusing it with the Rod of Asclepius, the son of Apollo who was a practitioner of medicine according to Greek mythology. Only one snake crept around Asclepius’s rod and it had no wings atop it.

Phrasal Folk Etymology

Friday, November 7th, 2008

My old friend Chris Stewart in South Africa wrote recently:

I do however remember that I was pondering how certain words only survive in phrases (like Kith as in “Kith & Kin”, or Fell as in “Fell Swoop”—or, as the dyslexic community I belong to might say, a “Swell Foop”, which somehow seems to sound like it means something).

Phrases like “kith and kin” and “to and fro”, in fact, don’t survive. We insist on having current words even in our unpredictable idioms. Most Americans now say “kissin’ kin” and “back and forth” instead of using their archaic counterparts. You meet the archaic phrases only in the written word.

“One fell swoop” is OK because all the words in that phrase are current English words, with or without their original meanings. The important issue seems to be that the components of English phrases, idiomatic or not, be current words in English, whether they make sense in the phrase or not.

The same applies to folk etymology, which I have just explained in the latest addition to Dr. Goodword’s Office and the alphaDictionary resources (click here). Folk etymology converts strange-sounding foreign words into user-friendly English words. The interesting fact is that folk etymology does not care if the words involved make sense so long as they are actual, current English words.

Old French, mousseron, for example, became English mushroom. Mushroom? Mushrooms are not rooms and they have nothing to do with mush? That doesn’t matter to folk etymology so long as mush and room are current English words.