(Early) Wednesday Word of the Week: Turkey

Okay, yeah, we all know the word turkey. But why are turkeys called turkeys? Being a bird native to America, one would guess it would have a Native American name… but it doesn’t. It’s actually named after the country Turkey.

Why is that? Well, it’s a very roundabout story. The Online Etymology Dictionary tells that in the 1540s, guinea fowl were imported from Madagascar via Turkey, by Near East traders known as “Turkey merchants”. There are two possible histories of what happened next. One story tells us that the Europeans came to America and thought the large wild birds pictured above looked like the guinea fowl they were accustomed to purchasing from Turkey merchants, so they called them “turkeys”. The other possibility is that, when the large American wild birds were brought to Europe for trade, they came via the Spanish through North Africa and then through Turkey, meaning that the birds were actually sold by the “Turkey merchants,” and nicknamed “turkeys.”

According to Slate magazine, turkey became the popular meat for family get togethers, both in America and as an imported food in Europe, because turkeys were large, cheap, and still quite tasty for the money:

Cows were more useful alive than dead, and commercial beef wasn’t widely available until the late 19th century. Chicken was more highly regarded than it is today, but rooster meat was tough, and hens were valuable as long as they laid eggs. Venison would have been another option, especially during the 17th and 18th centuries, though it would have required you to hunt for your Thanksgiving meal. There was plenty of ham or brined pork around, but it wasn’t considered fit for special occasions.

Today, it may not be the least expensive meat around, but it’s still tasty, and healthy too. If you find yourself stuck with a lot of leftover bird, try some turkey posole.


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