In honor of Thanksgiving, let’s talk turkey. The bird that goes so well with cranberry sauce is known in Hebrew as tarnegol hodu (tar-ne-GOAL HO-doo), which means “Indian chicken.”
Hebrew is hardly the only language to garble the origin of this native North American gobble-gobbler. In English the fowl is, of course, named after Turkey, the country. Any Americans not sure what to be thankful for this Thanksgiving can always fall back on thanking the British for giving us that word. Citing a theory put forth by the late Mario Pei, a Columbia University professor of Romance languages, Robert Krulwich of NPR reports that turkeys may have been called so by the British before the Pilgrims even set sail.
Turkeys were imported from America to Great Britain in the 1500s, via Constantinople, Pei explained. Since that was the port by which many goods from the East arrived, the British called the bird a Turkey coq, much as they called Persian carpets “Turkey rugs,” Indian flour “Turkey flour” and Hungarian carpet bags “Turkey bags.” Or perhaps, Pei suggested, it was just that American turkeys sufficiently resembled the African guinea fowls eaten in England before Christopher Columbus laid eyes on the New World; these were also imported by Turkish merchants and known as Turkey coqs.
And then there’s the highly dubious-sounding story that Columbus was secretly a Jew fleeing the Spanish Inquisition and, spotting an unknown bird upon arrival in the New World, called it a tuki, which means “parrot” in Hebrew. According to this tale, the word mutated into “turkey” but had nothing to do with the Eurasian country. If I were a Spanish parrot, I think I’d be offended.
Getting back to Israel’s “Indian chicken,” Russians and Poles have a similar name for turkey, which translates to “Indian bird.” And so do Turks, who reject any connection between their country and the most wanted bird in America come November, and call it “Hindi,” also in reference to India. It all comes back to Columbus, with these names apparently related to the confusion about whether he had landed in the East Indies. After all, calling this red-waddled poultry “Indian” makes as much sense as using that name for America’s indigenous population.
Quite possibly because of the Russian and Polish influence, the Yiddish word for turkey is “indik” or “hindik,” again referring back to that whole Indian misconception. The Hebrew etymology website Hasafa Haivrit explains that the Yiddish word appears to be the reason that the bird that Israelis will not be eating today is tarnegol hodu.