Every year around this time, I get asked the one-million-dollar Thanksgiving question: what is the relationship between Turkey-the-country and turkey-the-bird? In the past, my explanations have centered on the fact that the English named the turkey after the Ottoman “Turks,” who first introduced the bird to them. This year, I began to wonder: is English the only language in which the turkey is named after a country? If not, in how many languages is this the case? More than I ever imagined: English, Turkish, French, Portuguese, Dutch, Danish, and, at one point, German, Greek, Hindi, and Urdu.
My new question became–why? What is the grander international story of the humble Thanksgiving bird? As it turns out, tracking the different appellations applied to the meleagris gallopavo perfectly recreate trade routes of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Olaf Caroe writes,
The various names given to this bird [the turkey] in so many languages are…a fascinating commentary on the expansion of world trading and migrations, not only human, that took place at the end of the fifteenth and beginning of the sixteenth century. (“Why Turkey,” Journal of Asian Affairs, 1970)
To understand the whole story, we have to start with Portuguese. To this day, the Portuguese word for turkey is peru, as in Peru, the South American country (thanks to A.G. for confirming this). Caroe goes on to note that, in Hindi and Urdu of the fifteenth/sixteenth centuries, the turkey was also called peru. Why?
It has to do with the directionality of trade routes in that era. As historian H.B. Paksoy explains (Essays on Central Asia, Carrie, 1999), in 1494 the Pope in Rome forged the Tordesillas treaty, granting a monopoly on commerce originating from the newly discovered North American continent to the Portuguese (as opposed to the Spanish). At the time, Spanish possessions in the New World were collectively labeled Peru. Thus peru, applied to the bird, would suggest merely that it came from Central America.
The Portuguese, using their new trading privileges, brought, among other things, the turkey from Spanish territories in the Americas to Goa, the Portuguese colony in India. From India, the turkey was traded all over the Eurasian continent, as the names of the turkey in various European languages suggest:
One major language that is missing here is Spanish. In Spanish turkey is pavo (feminine pava), the Latin word for peacock from which Spanish-speakers do not distinguish the turkey. Yet Caroe suggests that even this name partakes in the Indian hypothesis, because Spaniards believed that the peacock was an Indian bird.
Thus, not only did European states originally meet the turkey through their trade with India, but most Europeans thought that the turkey was actually native to India, when in truth it was from “the New World,” the Americas. The catch is that Europeans did not know the difference between the New World and India, due to the widespread misconception that the New World was eastern Asia. Caroe writes,
The confusion may have arisen from the nearly simultaneous discovery of the Americas and of the Cape [of Good Hope] route to India by Spain and Portugal respectively. … Add to this … that the West Indian islands and the
Red[Native American] Indian take their names from the belief of the early explorers that in the New World they had reached the coasts of India. So the bird, in common with the native tribes of America, got an Indian connotation. [My politically-correct correction]
From India, one of the places the turkey was then introduced to was Egypt, a province of the Ottoman Empire. Thus the Turkish word for “turkey” is hındı, meaning “from India” and probably a borrowing from French dinde, a contraction of poulet de l’Inde, “chicken from India.”
When traders took a breeding stock from Ottoman Egypt–commonly known at the time as “Turkish” Egypt because the Ottomans were a Turkish dynasty who ruled from Istanbul, Turkey–to Spain and thence the British Isles, the bird was designated “turkey” in English. Caroe points out that in essence, this word is not really a divergence from the European trend of naming the bird after India: “To the English mind of the sixteenth century, Indian, Moor, and Turk meant much the same” (i.e., they were all furreners).
Today’s words for turkey around the world less reflect colonial-era trading routes and more US cultural imperialism. According to Google Translate and Word Reference, “turkey” in Hindi, German, Greek, and Danish are borrowings of the English word (टर्की, Türkei, Τουρκία, and Tyrkiet, respectively… although the Dutch word is still kalkoen).
So, when you chow down on your turkey (or vegetarian substitute) you can be newly impressed by the long history and international travels of the bird.
How do you say turkey in other languages and where do those words come from? Let me know in the comments.