In honor of Canadian Thanksgiving, a post about turkey. (It’s also London Restaurant Week. Less relevantly, Chocolate Week in the UK begins today.)

Turkey, the bird, is the most haphazardly named creature I know of. The bird is native to the Americas, to North America or the Yucat√°n, depending on the species. Thus, they were only introduced to the rest of the world in the fifteenth century at the earliest. In no way is the bird from Turkey, even in a period when the term could be used by Western Europeans to describe Muslims generally.

Neither are turkeys related to guinea fowls, which are natives of Africa, although Linneaus classified the North American one as such with the Latin name Meleagris gallopavo, the “guinea fowl chicken-peacock”.

English was not the only language to become geographically disoriented when faced with these birds. In French, the word for them is “dinde”, from “d’Inde”, meaning “of India”. Relatedly, the Dutch word for them, “kalkoen”, which, like the Finnish, Swedish, Norwegian, and Estonian words for the animal, is from the Indian city Calicut. The birds are not Indian any more than they are Turkish, although in Turkish they’re called “hindi”. These languages do have the excuse, at least, that the bird comes from what was originally thought to be India, later the West Indies. They were never from Calicut in any way, though.

In Greek, the word is “gallopoula”, meaning a “French chicken”, while in Egyptian Arabic, it’s a Greek chicken. In Arabic more generically, it’s a Roman chicken. (That sounds more inconsistent than it is; it refers to the Eastern half of the Roman empire, which was based at Constantinople.) The Greek might well derive from a confusion between Gallus and gallus, the Latin words for “Gaul/France” and “a chicken”.

One of the vaguely more accurate names – placing the bird on the right landmass at least – is one of my favorites because it pairs so well with the country/bird confusion which English has in Turkey/turkey; which the bird (of the Galliformes, or chicken-shaped, order of animals), inherited from the Latin Gallus/gallus pair; and which is shown in all the variations on India after which it is named. In Portuguese, and in Hindi thanks to past Portuguese influence, the animal is called “peru”, confusing the bird with yet another country. Turkeys were not introduced to Peru until the sixteenth century; they were, you will recall, from further north in the Americas.

Surely there is no animal named after more countries than this one is!

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*© S. Worthen 2009