Is turkey (the bird) named after Turkey (the country) or vice versa?
I started to think about the fact that there’s a bird and a country named the same thing. How did each get its name? Are there any other countries named the same as animals or food?
Here’s all I know for sure: Despite several crackpot theories to the contrary, the bird was
after the country, but in a very roundabout way so that the details are uncertain. Oh, one
other thing I know for sure: No European should ever have been allowed to name any New
World species. The Aztecs, who had kept domesticated turkeys for hundreds of years before the
Europeans arrived, had a perfectly good word for the bird in their Nahuatl language:
which, of course, is pronounced. Don’t ask me how they pronounced it, but I’m
pretty sure it can be done. Yet somehow “xuehxolotl
pot pie” doesn’t sound quite as appetizing.
First I’ll give you the country. Turkey was named for the Turks, believe it or not. Turk can
either “a citizen of the modern state of Turkey” or more broadly, “an individual of the
Turkic-speaking people.” The many Turkic languages are spoken not only in Turkey, but also in a
large area of central Asia and in northern Siberia. The real question is the origin of the name Turk.
The word is essentially the same in many languages, including English, Turkish, Arabic, and
Persian (Farsi). It probably comes from some Turkish root, but there’s no consensus
on which one.
It may be one root meaning “strong” or “vigorous” (according to the American Heritage
Dictionary) or it may be another meaning “the people” (according to the Encyclopedia
There are a couple of other theories of how the country got its name, both wrong.
first has it that the country was named after the first leader of the Turkish Republic, Mustafa
Kemal Atatürk. But like most Turks, Mustafa didn’t have any surname at all until
1934, when he
chose Atatürk (“Father of the Turks”) for himself. He had already given the country
western-influenced name Türkiye several years earlier. During the period of the
Turkish name for the country had nothing to do with the Turks. Rather, it was named for the
Osman (Ottoman) dynasty that ruled it. Another theory has it that the English named
the country after the bird, as a taunt. But the country was already called “Turki” or “Turkeye” in
English by 1275, hundreds of years before the bird was known in the Old World.
Now I’ll give you the bird. It is probable that the first bird called “turkey” in English
familiar Thanksgiving fowl (Meleagris gallopavo), but a smaller domesticated bird
sub-Saharan Africa: (Numida meleagris), which we now call the Guinea fowl. This bird
introduced to the Mediterranean in ancient times and was known (as a rarity) to the Greeks and
Romans. It was named after the mythical Meliagrides, who were the sisters of Meleager and who
were turned to birds after his death. This bird seems to have disappeared from Europe and was
reintroduced from west Africa by Portuguese traders at the end of the fifteenth century. If this
bird was from Africa, why was it called “turkey” in English? Probably because it was introduced
to England by so-called “Turkey merchants” who traded with the Mediterranean region, including
the Ottoman Empire (which then controlled the eastern third of that sea). A similar confusion
caused another New World species, maize or corn (Zea mays), to be called “Turkey
“Turkey corn” in England.
M. gallopavo was introduced to Spain from America
sometime between 1498 and 1526 (but
most likely before 1511), and thence to England sometime between 1520 and 1541 (but probably
before 1530). It too was named “turkey” in English, perhaps because it was confused with
N. meleagris, or because it was likewise introduced by Turkey merchants. In citations
Oxford English Dictionary, “turkey” dates from 1541, but it is unclear which species is meant.
Among unambiguous citations, the N. meleagris meaning of “turkey” beats out the M. gallopavo
meaning by only three years (1552 vs. 1555). The OED doesn”t say so but according to Schorger,
the word has also been used to describe other birds the males of which use tail displays, such as
the peacock. It is even possible that “peacock” was the original meaning of the word in English,
but that seems unlikely. For the same reason, the capercaillie (a kind of grouse) has sometimes
been called a peacock (pavo) in Latin as well as “turkey” in English.
There are other theories of how the bird got its name. John Smith (of Pocahontas fame) is
sometimes given credit for naming the birds he saw in Virginia “turkey,” having
confused them with the
Guinea fowl. But as we have already seen, both birds were established in England decades before
Smith was born in 1580. Another story is that the bird was named after its caruncle (wattle),
which is sometimes blue, the color of Turkey stone (turquoise). Okay, but just because you like
"Turkey in the Straw" doesn’t mean you have to grasp at straws trying to explain the
Another story is that Christopher Columbus named it tuka, after the Tamil word for
(He may or may not have been the first European to see a real turkey; the credit sometimes goes
to Pedro Alonso Niño or Vincente Yáñez
Pinzón, but it is less certain that the birds they saw
in earlier years were really turkeys). It’s hard to imagine why Chris would choose a Tamil word
when Spanish already had a perfectly suitable word for the domesticated peacock, which was not
at all uncommon in Europe at that time. But in fact he named the bird he saw in Honduras in 1502
not tuka, but rather gallina de la tierra (“ground chicken”).
But the peacock theory isn’t entirely fantasy. In the early days, there were dozens of different
names for the turkey in Spanish, but the one that finally caught on was pavo, which
refer to the peacock. To differentiate it from the turkey, the peacock is now called
pavo real in
Spanish (which could be translated “royal turkey,” and coincidentally this is exactly what I call my
brother-in-law). The two birds may not look very much alike to us, but the association isn’t
- They act the same. The males of both the peafowl and the turkey spread their tail feathers in
mating displays, though the turkey’s display is much less impressive.
- They sound the same. Both of them have unpleasant calls, a fact noted by the writer
who visited Mexico in the sixteenth century.
- They taste the same according to at least three early reports, including that of
In addition, there is a related species found in Central America, the ocellated turkey
(Meleagris ocellata, also called Agriocharis ocellata), which resembles a peacock
in having eye spots on its
tail feathers. It may have been this bird that the earliest Spanish explorers saw, or it may have
been any of several other birds of the region that have been confused with the peacock. This
confusion is a big part of the uncertainty of exactly when M. gallopavo was introduced to
English is not the only language that incorrectly associates the turkey with Turkey. Welsh
borrowed the English usage and calls the bird twrki. But it is interesting that many other
languages incorrectly associate the bird with other countries. In many languages (including
Turkish and French), the bird is called by names indicating it’s from India. This may derive
from the confusion between the East Indies and West Indies that was rampant in those days. In
one of the early Spanish names, gallina de las Indias, means “hen of the Indies.” But other
languages (such as Dutch and Danish) are strangely specific in calling the bird by names indicating
the bird is from the Indian city of Calicut. At that time, Calicut was the most important city for the
trade between Europe and India. So it would not have been unreasonable for Western Europeans
to assume that anything exotic came from Calicut, or more generally, from India. Incidentally,
“calico cloth” is also named after Calicut.
In Portuguese, the bird is called peru, despite the fact that the bird was not introduced
until after the Spanish conquest. The most reasonable explanation for the association is that the
bird became popular in Portugal shortly after Pizarro conquered Peru in 1532, and the Portuguese
made a natural assumption. In Brazilian slang, peru can also means “penis,” which must
interesting along the Brazil-Peru border. One word for the bird in one of the several dialects of
Hindi is also peru or piru, which is probably borrowed from Portuguese. That
makes sense, since
the turkey was introduced to India by the Portuguese (sometime before 1612). Another
suggestion, discounted by Portuguese etymologists, is that Portuguese and Hindi both borrowed
the word from a Tamil source. Tamil again? It’s hard to understand the fascination Tamil holds
for the inventors of false etymologies. Maybe they figure most of us can’t speak it and so will
believe almost anything about it. In case you were wondering, in Tamil the bird is called by names
meaning “sky chicken" or “foreign chicken," but neither name looks anything like
tuka or peru.
Lest you think the scientific name of the turkey makes more sense than the common ones, it is
duty to inform you that it is perhaps even more messed up. Meleagris gallopavo is
the names of three different birds, none of them the turkey. Meleagris was the ancient Greek
name of the Guinea fowl (mentioned above). For hundreds of years, European naturalists believed
the turkey was a kind of Guinea fowl, for reasons that are not entirely clear. Gallopavo
was one of
the early Spanish names for the turkey (often spelled gallipavo). Gallo- comes
Latin word for the common barnyard fowl (chicken), Gallus domesticus. And
-pavo comes from
Latin word for the blue peacock, whose scientific name is Pavo cristatus. The Spanish
gave it that name because the bird combined several traits of the two birds. Some later naturalists
took the name too literally and assumed the turkey was a hybrid of a peacock and a chicken or of
a rooster and a peahen.
Other foods that share names with countries? Well, there’s chili or chile (as in pepper) but
etymologically related to the name of the country Chile. Guinea is an obsolete shortened form of
the edible “Guinea fowl” (mentioned above). And from the Brazil nut tree (named after the
country) we get brazils (or Brazil nuts).
If you’ll accept geographical features smaller than nations, you can make a whole meal out of
places. You could have a Bologna and Cheddar Sandwich with Dijon, and a cup of Java to wash
it down. You could even serve it on fine China. And since you asked, there is a place called
Chicken, Alaska (pop. 17). There’s also an airport in California called Chicken Strip. No word on
whether it’s tender, juicy, and golden-brown. I could continue in the same silly vein, but I’m not Ghana do it.
Oman, all this talk of food is making me Hungary. Iran over as soon as I smelled your
Jamaica nuff for me? Why, yes, I would like some coffee. Just one Cuba sugar, though.
out of cream? Why don’t you just milk Macao to get Samoa? Bring me some booze instead. Lots
of it, because I really want to Taiwan on. This is what you call food? It’s nothing but Greece.
Waiter, Czech please!
Suggested reading: The Wild Turkey: Its History and Domestication by A. W.