A Thanksgiving Riddle: Why Are Turkeys Called Turkeys?

Every country in the world calls the turkey after some place else. Not one gets it right.

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This is a picture of a wild turkey, which could, at a long distance, if one is not armed with spectacles or binoculars, be mistaken for a guineafowl.
This is a picture of a wild turkey, which could, at a long distance, if one is not armed with spectacles or binoculars, be mistaken for a guineafowl. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Upon reaching the New World in 1492, Columbus’ interpreter and a recently converted Jew, Luis de Torres, noticed a strange fowl going “gobble gobble.” He christened it “tuki” after a creature mentioned in the Bible (1 Kings 10:22), which is usually rendered as “peacock” in English translations. From Spanish, tuki made its way to English in the form of “turkey,” which is where the bird eaten on Thanksgiving en masse got its name.

The only problem with this fantastic myth bruited about in some Jewish circles is that it’s false. "Tuki" is not a Spanish word for anything, let alone turkey, which they call pavo (originating from the Latin for peafowl).

Indeed the bird turkey, in English, is named after the country Turkey, in western Asia, despite being native to North America. That is the result of confusion compounded by more confusion.

Apparently the story begins with guineafowl, ground-nesting monogamous birds who thrive on insects and seeds in West Africa. When these birds were brought by merchants to late-Middle Ages markets in England, they were called “turkey-cock” or “turkey-hen,” which became abbreviated asexually to “turkey.”

Why these African birds were named after the Turks is not known, but they may have been first introduced to England by Turkish merchants.

This is a picture of an African guineafowl, which could, at a long distance, if one is not armed with spectacles or binoculars, be mistaken for a wild turkey.Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Now, turkeys may bear some resemblance to guineafowl, at a casual glance and ignoring their glaring difference in size. In any case, when English settlers ran into turkeys in the New World, they conflated them with the African fowl.

Thus the North American bird was named after an African bird which was named after a people of Asiatic descent (the name means “lineage” or “ancestry” in Turkic languages).

The Turks, by the way, call turkeys hindi, from the Turkish name of India, which has nothing to do with the turkey either.

It is not clear why the bird became associated with the south Asian nation, nor even what the source of this confusion is. But in any case, the Turks aren’t the only people to associate the two.

The French call the fowl dinde, which is short for poulet d’Inde (“Chicken from India”). Polish, Ukrainian and Yiddish all have indyk, which is similar to Russian indeyka, all of which are derived from India’s name. Hebrew followed suit as well, naming the bird tarnegol hodu (“Indian rooster”).

The Dutch made a similar yet more specific mistake, naming the bird after Calicut (now Kozhikode), a city in south India with which it has nothing to do.

So, the Dutch word is kalkoen, and since Dutch traders introduced the turkey around, the name stuck: Danish, Estonian and Norwegian turkeys are named kalkun, the Swedes call them kalkon, the Fins kalkkuna, the Icelanders kalkúnn, and the Lithuanians kalakutas.

A Thanksgiving dinner of turkey and salad. Where did that name 'turkey' come from? Yes, the country, but not the right one. Credit: Dreamstime.com

The Portuguese were quite a bit closer with their naming, but still got it wrong. They named the bird peru, after the South American country. At least they were in the right longitude. Portuguese traders brought the bird to South Asia, resulting in the Hindi and Pakistani name for turkeys - peru.

Arabic has a number of names for the bird, the most common being dik rumi (“Roman rooster”), but in the Levant, dik habash (“Ethiopian rooster”) is more common.

And finally, Moroccans call their turkeys bibi. That probably has nothing to do with the nickname of the incumbent Israeli prime minister.