Monday, November 17, 2014

Talking Turkey

For Thanksgiving a couple of years ago, I explained the etymology of that fine old bird, the turkey.  Without going into the same detail, suffice it to say that the word derives from the country of Turkey, through which 16th-century English traders imported guinea fowl from Madagascar.  The birds became known as “Turkey-birds,” and this same appellation was mistakenly given to the larger North American fowl to which they bore some resemblance.

The wild turkey, the North American form of the bird, was so called from 1610s. By 1575, turkey was becoming the usual main course at an English Christmas.

Other uses of the word turkey came much later. To talk turkey—“lay it on the level, speak candidly” (1824)—supposedly comes from an old tale of an Anglo pioneer attempting to swindle an American Indian in dividing up a turkey and a buzzard as food. The pioneer offered to let the Indian choose which he wanted: ''You take the buzzard and I'll take the turkey, or I'll take the turkey and you take the buzzard,'' whereupon the Indian declared that the Anglo was not “talking turkey to him.”

Cold turkey (1921) as a sudden method of totally giving up addictive substances, so-called because, like a meal of previously cooked and refrigerated turkey leftovers, it requires no preparation.

Turkey’s show-biz meaning—“inferior show, flop”—can be traced to 1927 and probably arose from the bird’s alleged stupidity.  Irving Berlin’s show business anthem speaks of a “turkey that you know will fold.”  Out of this grew the word’s use as a “stupid, ineffectual person,” which” dates only to 1951.

Turkey shoot, referring to "something easy," is World War II slang, alluding to marksmanship contests where turkeys were tied behind a log with their heads showing as targets. 

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou occasionally partakes in Wild Turkey, but only if it comes in a bottle.

            The Turkey once was King of Beasts,
            And showed all critters who was boss.
            But he became the King of Feasts,
            With dressing, yams, and cranberry sauce.

            He had an heir whose name was Tom,
            By whom the royal robes were taken,
            But Tom, his siblings, and his Mom
            Are now a slab of turkey bacon.

            The line of kings had one more Turkey,
            And shortly he was royally crowned.
            But he wound up as Turkey Jerky
            At nineteen ninety-five a pound.

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