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With the recent celebration of Thanksgiving in the US, and the imminence of Christmas, it’s timely to consider the name of a bird that is common to both traditions – the turkey. Turkeys don’t actually come from Turkey. They were originally called turkey birds or turkey cocks in English because they were introduced into Europe by merchants trading in parts of the Turkish empire in the early 16th century. In modern Turkish, the word for the bird is hindi which means “India”. This is another furphy, as the turkey is actually native to the American continent. It’s possible that the Indian connection came about through confusion with New Indies, which was an early name for America (Quinion, www.worldwidewords.org). The Portuguese for turkey is peru, which is closer to the mark, but still misleading as in fact they originated in Mexico. The metaphorical applications of the bird send similarly mixed messages. Talking turkey is a good thing to do, but going cold turkey certainly isn’t. And it’s not just at Christmas time that you wouldn’t want to be a turkey (“a flop”).

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