In response to my first post, some of you asked about why English would use the same word for two things as seemingly unrelated as Turkey and a turkey. I figured there’s no better time than just before Thanksgiving to answer that question. Let’s talk a little bit about the etymology of the words ‘turkey’ and ‘Turkey.’ Etymology is the study of words’ origins and the way their meanings change over time.
The word ‘Turkey’ ultimately comes from the word ‘Turk’ which is the name of an ethnic and linguistic group, and has been for a very long time. Turks have historically been associated with Anatolia because they have been the largest ethnic group there.
Here’s the etymological explanation for ‘turkey,’ paraphrased from the Online Etymology Dictionary.
There’s a type of bird called the guinea fowl, which comes from Africa. Back in the day (in the 16th Century), traders would bring guinea fowls from Madagascar up through north Africa, which was then part of the Ottoman Empire. Because of their trade route (and maybe because they were ethnic Turks), Englishmen called them ‘turkey merchants.’ Eventually, the name ‘turkey’ ended up being used for the guinea fowl.
The actual bird we know as a turkey was from the Americas, not Africa. When English speakers first saw a real turkey, they misidentified it as guinea fowl, aka ‘turkey.’
So, although there’s no real-world connection whatsoever between turkey and Turkey, we use the same word.
The Turkish word for ‘turkey’ is hindi, which basically means ‘Indian.’ They called it that because the bird came from North America, which most people at the time thought was basically an extension of India. This misconception is also the reason that ‘Indian’ is synonymous with ‘Native American’ in English.
There’s a moral to all of this. Humans make lots of mistakes. Language is created, modified, and shared by humans, so it reflects these mistakes. I find it all pretty charming.