The iconic American bird, eaten by many around the world at this time of the year, is called a turkey. But why?
The large bird, native to Mexico and the United States, ought to have a native American name rather than the name of a country 8,000 km away. In Mexico for example it is called the Guajolote, derived from Nahuatl meaning big monster.
Linguistic evolution is unfortunately not straight forward. American English has retained the English word turkey, a name that predates the arrival of American turkeys in England. The English had been importing large guinea fowl from Turkey long before the even larger American bird landed on their tables. But the old name stuck causing confusion ever since.
Given the name’s Turkish roots you might expect it to be called a turkey in Turkey. No such luck. There it is called the hindi, old Turkish for India. The same pattern continues eastward. Levantine Arabic refers to it as the Ethiopian bird, Indians call it the Peru and Mayasians the Dutch bird. Most languages it seems have been quick to disown this culinary king of birds.
There are some linguistic clusters of consistency. In French it is known as the dinde, short for Coq d’inde (Indian rooster). Hebrew, Polish, Ukranian and Russian all give it names that roughly translate to Indian chicken or Indian rooster. The Dutch call it the kalkoen, which is derived from the old Indian port of Calicut.
There is a cluster of languages that place the bird in Peru. The Portuguese, Croatians, Slovenians, Indians and Hawaiians all fall into this category.
Other languages have avoided geographic reference and chosen onomatopoeia, words that sound like the turkey’s gobble. Italians call it tacchino, Germans truthahn (trut, trut, trut is used to call the bird) and Persians Booghalamoon.
Perhaps the Albanian’s did the best job of naming it however. They call it gjel deti meaning sea rooster or pule deti meaning sea hen, an appropriate name for such a well travelled bird. On the other hand the Urdu name feel murgh, which literally means elephant chicken, could be summoned if you find yourself with a particularly large one. And the Scots bubbly-jock has a nice festive ring to it, especially appropriate if you are combining it with champagne.