Why Turkeys Are Called Turkeys

Turkey StrutToday I found out why turkeys are called turkeys.

In the 16th century, when North American turkeys were first introduced en masse to Europe, there was another bird that was popularly imported throughout Europe and, most relevant to this article, England, called a guinea fowl.  This guinea fowl was imported from Madagascar via the Ottoman Empire.  The merchants who did this were, thus, known as “turkey merchants”.  The guinea fowl themselves eventually were popularly referred to as “turkey fowl”, similar to how other product imported through the Ottoman Empire acquired their names, such as “turkey corn”, “turkey wheat”, etc.

The North American turkey was then first introduced to Spain in the very early 16th century and later popularly introduced to all of Europe shortly thereafter.  The North American turkey was thought by many to be a species of the type of guinea fowl that was imported via the Ottoman Empire and thus, began also being called a “turkey fowl” in English, with this eventually being shortened to just “turkey”.

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Bonus Facts:

  • A group of turkeys is technically called a “rafter”, though they are often incorrectly referred to as a “gobble” or simply a “flock”.
  • Due to the reputation of turkeys being incredibly stupid, the term “turkey” began being used as a slang, derogatory term meaning something akin to “idiot” around the early 20th century.  (Note: domestic turkeys are shockingly stupid, but wild turkeys are not.)
  • The phrase “Turkey Shoot” comes from the mid-20th century practice of tying turkeys behind logs, with only their heads exposed, and then holding a marksmanship competition, trying to shoot the turkey’s head off.
  • One generally considered fictitious origin for naming a turkey such, comes from the Hebrew “tuki” (Hebrew for peacock).  If no one knew anything about the history of the turkey being introduced to the English speaking world, this might seem very plausible.  However, the historical evidence does not back up the claims here.
  • A similarly reasoned argument states that it comes from the fact that turkeys sometimes make a “turk turk turk turk” sound.  If that’s where it came from, rather than what the historical evidence suggests, I’d think we’d have called them “gobbles”.  I’ve raised domestic turkeys (don’t ask) and don’t remember them ever making a “turk turk turk” sound, though they do make a variety of sounds.  The gobble sound, from the male turkeys, on the other hand, sounds exactly like you’d expect from the name and they do this all the time.
  • The suit on Sesame Street’s Big Bird was originally made up of over 4000 white turkey feathers dyed bright yellow.
  • Due to the white meat being the most popular part of a turkey, turkeys have been bred to have huge breasts.  So much so that modern day domesticated turkeys are no longer typically able to mate, due to the breasts getting in the way of the male mounting the female.  As such, most hatcheries use artificial insemination to fertilize the eggs of the domestic turkey.
  • A somewhat popular dance in the very early 20th century was the “turkey trot”.  This was a dance where the participants would quite literally just strut around like a turkey, in circles around one another.  This was generally banned due to its lewd nature, which ended up making it a pretty popular dance.  You can see a good example of this dance if you watch the end of the movie O Brother, Where Art Thou?, when George Clooney does this dance on the stage while performing Man of Constant Sorrow.
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  • Funny thing is that in Israel, Turkey is called “Hodu,” (“India”) short for “Tarnigol Hodu,” which means “India Chicken.”

    In Brazil it’s called “Peru.”

    Seems like the dumb bird keeps getting blamed on other countries..

    bonus note– in Hebrew, “Hodu” can mean “India,” “Turkey (the bird)” or “Give thanks.” So all three come together in the American Thanksgiving! (with the shift from “India” to “Indian”)

  • Domestic turkeys are actually very *shockingly* smart. The only difference is the naturally evolved enhanced survival skills that wild turkeys possess. Perhaps you could benefit from researching your subjects slightly more thoroughly before writing your next article.

    • Daven Hiskey

      @Nicole: Sources? I raised domestic turkeys for many years. They are dumb as bricks.


    • I have a pet turkey and he is very smart. Maybe it’s the turkey handler and not the turkey who isn’t very smart?

    • Daniel Aldrich

      Nicole I worked on a domestic turkey farm that raises approximately 10,000 turkeys per year for approximately seven years. Domestic turkeys are extremely stupid. I have seen domestic turkey stare straight up at the sky with their mouth during extremely heavy rain storms thus drowning themselves. I have seen domestic turkeys repeatedly and intentionally run at barb wire and electrified fences.

  • Due to the white meat being the most popular part of a turkey, turkeys have been bred to have huge breasts. ………………………… U DISAPPOINT TERRIBLY BUDDY. THIS ASPECT NEEDS ATLEAST 6-7 GRISLY PICS (I WAS EXPECTING SUM GR8 ORGASM LIKE I DID WHEN I GOT SIMILIAR PICS WHEN RESEARCHING ON FOIE-GRAS). NO-TNX FOR AN INCOMPLETE PERFECTION.

  • I thought the Youtube commenters were bad, but some of the commenters on these articles really take the cake!

  • Thank you for an interesting & informative article. Hope you won’t let the negative comments bother you. Cheers!

  • In Hebrew “tuki” means parrot, peacock is “tavas” and turkey is “tarnegol hodu”.
    Get your birds right.
    The turkey is kosher, although when it was first introduced to Europe there were active debates among Jewish communities whether it should be considered kosher or not. Peacocks, BTW, are considered kosher but they are no longer consumed since the early 19th century. Parrots are not kosher and never were.

  • But why were the ‘turkey merchants’ called that? What’s the connection between the Ottoman Empire and Madagascar? The explanation is missing a few points.