Let’s talk turkey.
As a child, the first time I heard that expression, I envisioned a pair of barrel-chested, scrawny-legged old men chattering unintelligibly (“gobble, gobble, gobble”), flapping their arms for emphasis. Later, when I learned that “talking turkey” referred to serious discussion, I assumed that the phrase had been coined at someone’s Thanksgiving dinner table, perhaps even the first one at Plymouth Rock.
Turns out I was right. Maybe.
According to various reference books on American slang and idioms, the first recorded use of the phrase was in 1824, but most scholars agree that it probably originated in colonial times and that it used to mean speaking agreeably or saying pleasant things. At some point in the 19th century, the definition of “talking turkey” shifted to the one we recognize today, honest and frank discussion.
I found several purported origin stories, all of them centered on a hunting arrangement between a Native American and a colonist. An 1837 magazine article recounted, “An Indian and a white man went a shooting in partnership and a wild turkey and crow were all the results of the day’s toil. The white man, in the usual style of making a bargain with the Indian, proposed a division of the spoils in this way: ‘Now Wampum, you may have your choice: you take the crow, and I’ll take the turkey; or, if you rather, I’ll take the turkey and you take the crow.’ Wampum reflected a moment on the generous alternative thus offered, and replied — ‘Ugh! You no talk turkey to me a bit.’ “
Another version quoted the native as saying, “You talk all turkey for you. Only talk crow for me.” Variations of the story described the hunters’ haul as being evenly split between turkeys and buzzards, or turkeys and owls, but the turkeys are always the prized catch.
Which raises the question of why, if the turkey was the preferred bird, the word is now considered an insult. For over a century, “turkey” has been synonymous with a loser or a dud, as well as a theatrical flop, on either stage or screen. Etymologists concur that the slang was born out of the common belief that turkeys are stupid and slow.
So why are three strikes in a row called a turkey in bowling, but not in baseball? I tried, unsuccessfully, to find the reasoning behind the bowling term. I guess you could say I struck out. I did, however, find myself gobbling up more turkey lore.
For example, I’d forgotten about the phrase “jive turkey” until it popped up among my search results. The phrase was popular in the 1970s, especially in funk music and on TV sitcoms, and evolved from the slang word “jive,” from the 1940s, when folks used it to describe foolishness, frivolity, or, at its worst, deceit. The Ohio Players’ “Jive Turkey — Part 1,” about an insincere and unfaithful lover, peaked at No. 6 on Billboard’s Hot R&B charts in 1974.
And then there’s “cold turkey.” The Oxford English Dictionary says the phrase was first published in the early 1900s and by 1920, it referred specifically to quitting addictive substances. But the OED doesn’t speculate on the origin of the phrase. Some scholars have suggested that a drug addict suffering withdrawal symptoms does resemble a pale and clammy turkey carcass, covered in goose bumps. Or, as we prefer to say in the islands, chicken skin.
I think the origins of “goose bumps” and “chicken skin” are pretty obvious. There are, of course, more curious idioms which invoke various feathered creatures, but I’m fowling out now. With all this turkey talk, my head feels as stuffed as — well, you know.
* Kathy Collins is a storyteller, actress and freelance writer whose “Sharing Mana’o” column appears every Wednesday. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.