Talking Turkey – or India, or Peru?

Our iconic Thanksgiving bird may be suffering from a case of mistaken national identity

IN 1621, Plymouth, Mass., colonists and Wampanoag natives collaborated in an autumn harvest that nowadays is recognized as one of the first Thanksgiving celebrations in the New World. It was only in 1863, in the midst of the Civil War, that Abraham Lincoln proclaimed Thanksgiving Day to be celebrated each November.

But although the American Thanksgiving origins may be more famed, Canada’s celebrations predate those of her southern neighbour. In 1578, explorer Martin Frobisher held a thanksgiving feast that consisted of salt beef and mushy peas, which took place in Newfoundland during Frobisher’s quest to find the Northwest Passage. Thanksgiving was declared a national holiday in Canada in 1879, and now falls on the second Monday in October.

We do enjoy more details as to the contents of that inaugural American Thanksgiving feast, however. Pilgrim chronicler Edward Winslow described how Plymouth Colony governor William Bradford sent four men on a “fowling” mission and that the Wampanoag guests arrived bearing five deer. Historians suggest the dishes were prepared using traditional indigenous spices, and because the Pilgrims had no ovens and very little sugar the meal didn’t feature the pies, cakes and other desserts we associate with modern Thanksgiving feasts.

Winslow’s account mentions wild fowl, which was just as likely to have been duck or goose as turkey. But as Governor Bradford mentioned in his writings that the colonists hunted wild turkeys in 1621, it gained traction as the Thanksgiving meal of choice when Lincoln formalized the holiday in 1863.

But why is this fowl called turkey, and what is the relationship of this bird to an Islamic country that has never celebrated Thanksgiving or American football?

Geographical name designations were imprecise in the 16th century. For example, in Britain during that era Persian rugs were called “Turkey rugs” and Indian flour “Turkey flour.” The domestic turkey, whose proper name is Meleagris gallopavo, was first domesticated by the Mayas and Aztecs that dwelled in Mexico and Central America. When the Spanish conquered the Aztecs, they began to export this bird back to Europe and Asia.

At around the same time in the early 16th century, Portuguese traders in the New World exported this bird to the Goa colony in India, and from the beginning this fowl was confused with Meleagris numida, the helmeted guineafowl commonly found in Africa, particularly Guinea, which had been known to Mediterranean peoples as the “guinea fowl” or “turkey-cock.” The word “turkey” was first cited in the Oxford English Dictionary in 1577, from Conrad Heresbach’s Foure Bookes of Husbandry: “And here I keepe also Geese, Duckes, Peacocks, Turkicockes, and other poultry.”

While the English language made Turkey a stand-in for Asia, other languages have posited India as the quintessence of the continent. For example, observe the French dinde (meaning “of India”) and the Hebrew hodu (“India”). The words for “turkey” in Russia and Poland are indyushka and inyczka respectively (“from India”), while Italians sometimes refer to the bird as pollo d’India. Catalan and Basque also name the turkey after India, and in some languages it is named for the Indian city of Calicut, i.e., the Danish kalkun, the Dutch and Afrikaans kalkoen, and the Finnish kalkkuna. And in Turkey itself the bird is called hindi, which is the language of India.

In Portugal, which first exported the turkey from the New World, the turkey is called a peru; “Peru” then referred to all of Spanish America, from where the bird was taken. Some dialects of Hindi, likely influenced by Portuguese, use the term peru pakshi (“Peru bird”) to refer to a turkey.

And if you like to garnish your Thanksgiving turkey with cranberry sauce, be aware that the early revellers would not have been able to embellish it this way. Cranberry sauce may have been first used in the 1660s, when it was referenced in a journal of a Briton travelling in Massachusetts, and it enjoys its first OED citation in 1767. At this point you may be asking what the “cran” in “cranberry” signifies? The answer is, nothing really. While languages such as German and Swedish have similar words for cranberry kranichbeere and tranbar respectively the kranich and tran prefixes don’t have specific meanings. In fact, the cranberry has the honour of designating this type of linguistic term; a “cranberry morpheme” describes a part of a word that doesn’t have an independent meaning or grammatical function but distinguishes one word from another. Other examples of this linguistic phenomenon are “kempt” in unkempt, “twi” in twilight, “luke” in lukewarm, and “ept” in inept.

All this said, don’t let the mistake in naming the turkey and the unknowable “cran” element in cranberry prevent you from enjoying your next Thanksgiving feast.

Howard Richler’s latest book is Wordplay: Arranged and Deranged Wit. (It isn’t a turkey.)