The Curious History of the Turkey

Have you ever wondered why a turkey is a “turkey”? The name “turkey” for the gawky bird we eat on Thanksgiving has an interesting and convoluted history. The bird was first domesticated by the Aztecs, and the Spanish were the first to bring the bird to Europe from the New World. Not knowing what to call the bird, some Spanish colonials began to call it a “Peru” after the supposed place of its origin. Frenchmen, on the other hand, initially called the bird a “Jesuit,” believing that Jesuit missionaries were the first to bring the bird to Europe.

"Hans, shoot that fat Jesuit in the back yard.
We'll cook him up for our Reformation Day party.
Here’s where it gets a bit complicated. The bird we today call a “guinea fowl” was originally imported to Europe from Madagascar via Turkey. Hence the bird was called, in English, a “turkey” and, in French, ‘poulet d’inde’ (chicken of India). It received the name “guinea fowl” after Portuguese traders began widely importing them to Europe from West Africa (Guinea). For a time the birds were called both “turkeys” and “guinea fowl” interchangeably.

With all this in mind, the birds from the New World began to be brought to Spain, and it was from Spain via Turkish-controlled North Africa that most of Europe imported the birds. Hence the name “turkey” seemed to fit this bird as well. This naming was helped along by the fact that it was widely believed that turkeys were a large species of guinea fowl. When the two confusingly named birds were distinguished, the name “turkey” was taken by the new American bird and the name “guinea fowl” was reserved for the bird from Madagascar.

Now since most of us are going to be enjoying some turkey tomorrow for Thanksgiving, here's one last bit of information just for fun. By the 1570s, turkey was the standard main course for an English Christmas dinner, and well-loved in England. Ironically, though the American turkey enjoyed such popularity in England during the time of the Pilgrims, the Pilgrims did not actually have turkey at their first Thanksgiving.

"Well, that was a glorious turkey dinner. I wonder what my
Separatist cousins in the New World are eating right now."
"Heh, probably wild venison or something silly like that."
"Yes, let's all give thanks for our traditional English dinner!"

Sources:
The Horizon Cookbook and Illustrated History of Eating and Drinking through the Ages vol. II (Wendy Buehr, ed.)

Comments

Erica said…
It's only slightly less complicated than trying to explain the word "Hokie"...
Rick said…
I'll have to get you to explain that one some time. I've never heard it.