Historia: The Turkey from Turkey

The surprising name origin of America's favorite Thanksgiving fowl

Every Thanksgiving, many Americans cook a large fowl which shares its name with a prominent country in West Asia.

I was reminded of this striking coincidence while walking in a Turkish bazaar in Northern Nicosia, Cyprus, where I came across a Turkish butcher’s shop with a sign and a picture of a turkey bird with the label, in English: TURKEY.

Is there a connection between Turkey the nation-state and Turkey the bird?

After some further investigation—well, there is a logical explanation for all of this.

In the 1500s and 1600s, a type of fowl imported from the Middle East (ie., Ottoman Empire) were known as “turkey birds” in Europe. As such, they were birds from “Turkey” (as the Ottoman Empire was also known to Europeans as “Turkey” or the “Turkish Empire”).

English colonists who came across a certain kind of large fowl in North America called those birds “turkeys” because they resembled the different breed of guineafowl they used to find in markets in Europe.

So, in that way, the classic American holiday of Thanksgiving owes a weird cross-cultural debt to Turkey.

Historia is a new history series from The Usonian: Storytelling and Design from the Edge. I’ll be discussing more fun-sized facts and anecdotes in the weeks and months to come.