The Mistake that Gave Turkey (the Bird) the Same Name as Turkey (the Nation)
If you’ve ever visited Turkey, you probably ate shwarma, but it’s unlikely that you were served a crispy, golden turkey leg. The former center of the Ottoman Empire isn’t exactly a breeding ground for the bird that Americans associate with Thanksgiving. In fact, the turkey is native to North America.
So why do they share the same name?
First, let’s get the facts on the two turkeys. Meleagris gallopavo is an odd-looking bird that is known for his bare head, wattle, and iridescent plumage. As in many species, the male turkey has feathers that are brighter than the female. The republic of Turkey straddles Asia and Europe and has coastline along the Black Sea, the Mediterranean, and the Aegean. Its capital city is Ankara.
Here’s how they are related. In the 1540s, the guinea fowl, a bird with some resemblance to the Thanksgiving avian, was imported from Madagascar through Turkey by traders known as turkey merchants. The guinea fowl was also nicknamed the turkey fowl. Then, the Spanish brought turkeys back from the Americas by way of North Africa and Turkey, where the bird was mistakenly called the same name. Europeans who encountered the bird in the Americas latched on to the “turkey fowl” name, and the term was condensed simply to “turkey.” Turkeys have fared better than their guinea fowl relatives on the international scene, perhaps explaining why you probably have never heard of guinea fowl until right now.
The Turkish name for the bird is hindi, which literally means “Indian.” This name likely derived from the common misconception that India and the New World were one and the same.
The Turkey’s acceptance into the Old World happened quickly. By 1575, the English were enjoying the North American bird at Christmas dinner.
We want to acknowledge, as some commenters have noted, that our previous explanation of “turkey” confusion was a bit, well, confusing. We hope that our revisions are clearer. We at the Hot Word aren’t too chicken to admit when our writing is a turkey; hopefully, with our meatier explanation, your appetite for nomenclature knowledge is sated (let us know if you’re still confused.)