Turkey: International Bird of Mystery

Since most of us probably won’t be eating it for another 11 or 12 months, I think it’s time to give the turkey its due before we forget about it again.

The word turkey (used to refer to the bird) has a surprisingly convoluted etymology. And no, it’s not a coincidence that it’s also the name of a country…

Birds known as guinea fowl began to be transported from Madagascar (or Guinea: historians have many competing theories) to Turkey in the mid-15th century, and sold from there to the rest of Europe. The bird gradually became known as turkey cock, and then turkey for short. When the first Europeans came across very similar birds in America, they decided to call them turkeys too.

All fairly straightforward so far, but things get confusing when one looks at the word for turkey in other languages. You might first want to know what the Turkish word for turkey is, and the answer is…

hindi, which means Indian…

You see, lots of people were under the impression that turkeys were from India. This may have started in Turkey, where people knew guineafowl wasn’t native, but didn’t know where it really came from, so assumed India. This is also evident in the French word dinde, short for poulet d’Inde (Indian chicken). And the Dutch word is the very specific kalkoen, a contraction of Calicut-hoen, meaning hen from Calicut.

Yeesh! So what do they call it in India then? In Hindu it’s tarki, but some Indian dialects use piru or peru, the latter being how Portuguese sailors referred to the bird. The word probably spread around the world due to Portuguese exploration and colonisation (similar words for turkey can be found in Croatian, Hawaiian, Slovene, Pakistani Urdu, Galician, and Malay). And of course they called it peru as a reference to Peru, which is now a specific South-American country, but once referred to all Spanish-controlled American areas, including Mexico, where turkeys could be found.

But then in Malay it’s also known as ayam Belanda (Dutch chicken), and in Breton it’s yar-Spagn (Spanish chicken). It seems no-one could agree on where the bird came from, so next time you’re tucking into some turkey, try to appreciate the international linguistic odyssey it went on before arriving on your plate.

9 thoughts on “Turkey: International Bird of Mystery

  1. Doubt I’ll take long enough before my next bite to revisit the content of this blog or the idea of the multi-language – multi-origin theme relating to MY turkey but it was a really interesting read when something yummy wasn’t right before me waiting to enter my mouth. You get whether it is brain or belly that controls my thoughts right? Thank you for another interesting and fun fact filled posting. ~~dru~~

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Interesting. So, I assume the guinea fowl and the turkey are not exactly the same bird, just similar? India gets a lot of credit (like North American Indians, allegedly Columbus’ mistake, a name that sticks to this day…)

    Always nice to learn new things here!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. […] No-one knows exactly where Venetian blinds came from, but Persia is a likely candidate (they’re also known as les persiennes in French). They were brought back to Europe to be sold by Venetian traders, and in English at least the association with Venice stuck. It reminds me a lot of the word turkey. […]


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