Field of Science

Turkey tales

Common names are the bane of biologists because they can be applied, misapplied, multiplied, and codified, all without any rhyme or reason.  Such it is with the Turkey.  What you may ask does the Republic of Turkey have to do with this native N. American bird?  Short answer: nothing.  When good old Columbus stumbled upon the Americas, he thought he had reached the western most portions of Asia.  Thus the natives of the "east Indies" must be Indians, and neither people so referred to has been very happy about this ever since.  When Europeans first observed this N. American bird they mistakenly thought it to be similar to the guinea fowl, which was also called the Turkey fowl as it had been imported to Europe via the great trading centers of Turkey and the far-flung Ottoman Empire.  The name turkey stuck probably because that is what it was known as to European immigrants who followed.  The same fate was in store for maize (the native N. America name for this native grain), so please, it's not corn, which only means common grain of the region (as for corn in Scotland and see what you get).  In Gerarde's (1597) great herbal (get a pdf of the whole damned book for free!) maize was called "turkie wheate" (p. 97, to save you the trouble of the index) and it did not receive a glowing recommendation as the grain was "hard and evill digestion, a more convenient foode for swine than for men".  Naming new things after the country of origin, or their supposed country of origin is very common.  Next where is the crane in craneberry? 


Bend said...

I have read elsewhere that the American turkey had been taken back by the Spanish and bred extensively throughout Europe and the near east. Commonly sold by Turkish traders the fowl became known as Turkey birds or Turkey fowl and eventually just Turkeys. Wikipedia prefers your explanation, while the Straight Dope gives a rather detailed account mentioning both possibilities and suggesting that we should have stuck with the Aztec name of the bird, "xuehxolotl."
But, whether your American-centric story or my Eurocentric story is correct, I'd like to add a layer of confusion. Here in Australia the early European immigrants found a large black and white bird that resembled the American Turkey and so they called it..."Bush Turkey." So now a bird with not even a tangential relationship with the former Ottoman empire shares its name.

The Phytophactor said...

Thanks for providing the other plausible story that was new to me. And thanks for reminding me of several Thanksgivings in Australia, and indeed, Bush turkeys were common on my study sites in far Northern Queensland, a great bird.