On the last Thursday of every November, millions of American families get together and eat a huge meal. It’s called Thanksgiving, and was originally celebrated by the Pilgrims in honor of their first harvest in 1621. It didn’t become a regular holiday in the United States until the Civil War, when President Abraham Lincoln called for a day of “Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens” on the last Thursday of November in 1863.
One of the hallmarks of the Thanksgiving meal is a roasted turkey (Meleagris gallopavo), a large bird native to the New World. But why is it called a “turkey”? Does it have anything to do with the country of the same name?
Sort of, yes. Europeans have eaten guineafowl for centuries. These are large birds native to West Africa (which is where Guinea is, and where the gold came from that the British later minted into gold coins also called Guineas). But the English never hunted the birds themselves. The birds were captured in Africa and shipped to Turkey, where merchants sold them on to customers in central Europe. Because they “came from Turkey”, the English called the birds “Turkey fowl” (or “Turkey hen” or “Turkey cock”, if you wanted to be specific).
So when explorers arrived in North America, they saw these huge birds and called them “Turkey fowl”, and later on, just “turkeys”. Although they were wrong – guineafowl and American turkeys are totally different birds – the name stuck.
But it wasn’t just the English who got it wrong. The bird is called turcaí in Irish and twrci in Welsh, both borrowing from the English “turkey”. And in Armenia, Catalonia, France and Israel they’re called “Indian chickens” (as in “India”, not “Native American”). This is also hinted at in Malta, Poland and Turkey, where the bird’s names have allusions to India (in fact, Turks call them hindi).
In Dutch, the word for turkey is kalkoen, meaning “from Calicut” (Calcutta). Danish, Norwegian, Swedish, Icelandic, Finnish and Estonian use some variant of the Dutch, like kalkun, kalkúnn, or kalkon. And, thanks to colonialism, it’s also the word used in Papiamento, the native language of the Lesser Antilles, especially Aruba and Curaçao.
For some reason, the Greeks, Cambodians and Scottish Gaels call the bird a “French chicken”. I don’t know if the Greeks hate the Turks so much and the Scots hate the English so much that they felt they had to invent their own term for the bird, but at least the Cambodians have a tradition of prefixing anything Western with the “French” moniker.
Some folks even call the birds “Peru”. The Portuguese call them that, perhaps because the first Portuguese explorers to see the birds happened to be in Peru at the time. A Hawaiian nobleman named Boki was shown the birds on a trip to Peru and took a few home along with the Portuguese name, which is why they’re called pelehu in Hawai’ian today. Croatians call them “Perus” (actually puran), which comes from the Italian peruano, which means Peruvian, although the Italians call the bird tacchino in their own tongue. Thanks again to colonialism, the Hindi word for turkey is also Peru, also because of the Portuguese. How Monty Python missed the opportunity to do a skit in which Englishmen ask Turks for turkeys while Turks ask Hindus for hindis and Hindus ask Peruvians for perus is a mystery.
The Arabic word for turkey is dik rumi, which usually means “Roman chicken”, although it can mean “Greek” or “Byzantine”, too.
The Vietnamese just call them gà tây, which means “Western chicken”, while the Backfoot Indians of North America sensibly just call them ómahksipi’kssíí, which means “big bird”.
Malaysians, apparently an indecisive lot, call them either Ayam Piru (“Peruvian chicken”) from the Portuguese or Ayam Belanda, which means “Dutch chicken”.
Russians get it halfway right with indeyka, which is related to the Russian word for American Indian.
Iranians call them booghalamoon, a cute onomatopoeia of the bird’s famous gobble sound.
Germans – who’ve never met a compound word they didn’t like – call them Truthahn, a combination of trut (the general name for bird calls used in hunting) and Hahn (rooster).
Japanese call them shichimencho (literally, “seven-faced bird”) due to the multiple facial expressions the bird is said to make. Koreans use chilmyeonjo, their version of the Japanese word.
Surprisingly (or not), the whole thing is a giant mess in the Spanish language. In Spain they’re called pavo, which is Latin for “peafowl” (and Tagalog, the main language of the Philippines, calls them pabo from the Spanish). But in Mexico they’re called guajolote, a Nahuatl word. But cócono, pípila, and güíjolo are also regional terms in Mexico, and in Central America they’re called chompipe, chunto or chumpe.