Language Pulsations: Turkey Around the World (Repost)

turkey etymology


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. –Olaf Caroe “Why Turkey,” Journal of Asian Affairs, 1970.

Note: this was originally posted last year and, in honor of Thanksgiving, is reposted here with minor edits.

Every year around this time, I get asked the one-million-dollar Thanksgiving question: what is the difference 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? The answer: English, Turkish, French, Portuguese, Dutch, Danish, German, Greek, Hindi, and Urdu all currently or at one point named the bird after a country’s name.

My new question became–why? What is the grander international narrative of the Thanksgiving fowl? As it turns out, tracking the different appellations applied to the meleagris gallopavo perfectly recreate trade routes of the 15th and 16th centuries. 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). In the Journal of Asian Affairs, Olaf Caroe notes that, in Hindi and Urdu of the 14th and 15th centuries, the turkey was also called peru. Why?

We find some reason in 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 the turkey from America to Goa, its 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 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. Essentially, Europeans did not know the difference between the New World and India, due to the widespread misconception that the New World was East 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 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.

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 it was ruled by the Ottomans–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” (they were all furreners).

But that was centuries ago, and we’ve come a long way since then. Today’s words for turkey around the world less reflect colonial-era trading routes and more U.S. cultural imperialism. According to various online dictionaries, “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.


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