Monday, November 19, 2012

Why are turkeys called turkeys?

We do some dreadfully unfair things to turkeys at this time of year. Case in point:

(Just spare a thought for a moment for the stylist who worked on this shot. You know it took hours.) 
The rest of the year -- when we're not plucking, roasting, devouring, or shoving "beaming orange taper candles" in ceramic simulacra of them -- we make their name an insult. A turkey is a dud, a flop, an embarrassing failure. A turkey is an inept fool.

I don't think Wild Turkeys are dopes. I think they're majestic and gorgeous, strutting and wobbling their wattles and preening feathers that to me look like some kind of lustrous suit of armor.

Wild Turkeys, Arizona (Photo by Frank Gallo)

Wild Turkey, Arizona (Photo by Frank Gallo)
The English language is cumbersome and clotted with history. Pull on any word in any sentence, and the thread will just keep unspooling through your fingertips. Duds and flops are called turkeys because people underestimate turkeys . . . but turkeys were called turkeys in the first place because people in England mistakenly thought they came from Turkey. And it wasn't just that they mistakenly thought they came from Turkey. They mistook them for an entirely different bird. This bird:

Guinea fowl (Photo by Fir002/Flagstaffotos via Wikimedia Commons)
Guinea fowls don't come from Turkey, either. They're from Africa. But they were imported via Turkey, which was good enough, apparently. As to how anybody got a turkey confused with a guinea fowl, I think the only excuse for that would be if the guinea fowl was in a form such as this:

Mmm, delicious-looking guinea fowl. (Photo by By FASTILY via Wikimedia Commons)
The pre-Columbian people of Mexico were the first to domesticate turkeys, and the conquistadors took turkeys back to Spain in the early 16th century. Rumors of their deliciousness spread to other parts of Europe, and then the English got involved and suddenly the birds were called turkeys, even though they were not Turkish or Spanish but Mexican. If the English language was fair and made sense, we would be eating mexicos, not turkeys. 

English colonists took turkeys with them and introduced them to North America in the 17th century. Of course, the species was already here, and Native Americans had been eating them for goodness knows how many generations. What this means, though, is that the birds we buy this week at the grocery store are all actually descended from Mexican turkeys. I think my brain is about to explode. 

And then after all that, I discovered that we should really be eating eels this Thanksgiving.

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