Awkward conversations can be as much of an annual Thanksgiving tradition as food, family, friends, and football. For those wanting to avoid subjects too political or too personal, consider chatting about what the deal is with a country and a bird having the exact same name. 

Safer than some subjects, this Turkey/turkey topic is still subject to dispute, as there are differing explanations for the name. Some have speculated that it has to do with Luis de Torres, Christopher Columbus’s interpreter. In 1492, upon arrival in the new land, de Torres--who was Jewish--wrote a letter to a friend and described the bird using the Hebrew word for peacock, tuki, which appears in Bible in I Kings 10:22. 

Many have dismissed that explanation as pure gobbledygook and instead favor theories that connect the bird with the country. According to linguist Mario Pei, its name may have something to do with the way it was imported. During the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, the bird’s arrival in Great Britain came via Turkish merchants in Constantinople. The British had a lackadaisical habit of naming things after where they arrived from, rather than the place they originated. For example, instead of calling flour grown in India “India flour,” it would be called “Turkey flour” since it was imported from there. Following this logic, the American bird that was imported through Constantinople would have been called a “Turkey coq” in Great Britain. 

Like the turkey coq, the guinea fowl also has a country-bird moniker. The similarities don’t end there--Pei and others have theorized the bird’s naming may have been a case of mistaken identity that can be thought of as the Jessica Chastain/Bryce Dallas Howard mix-up of the bird world. Mark Forsyth, a writer whose expertise is English language etymology, explains that Spanish conquistadors brought the Meleagris gallopavo, the bird that is native to North America, to Europe. There, it was mistaken for the bird that was called “turkey” due to their similarity in taste.

Stanford linguistics professor Dan Jurafsky offers a slightly different take with a similar theme, adding that although the Spanish introduced the Meleagris gallopavo to Europe in the fifthteenth century, it was probably the Portuguese who spread the bird throughout the continent. Around the same time period, guinea fowl were reintroduced to Europe, imported from Ethiopia by way of Turkish Mamluk sultans and the bird was sometimes referred to as a “turkey cock”.

Birds of a feather get confused for others? There is a striking similarity between turkeys and the guinea fowl, pictured above. Actually, that is a turkey--see how easy that was?!
Image Credit: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Northeast Region.

As well as appearing in Europe at approximately the same time, both the turkey and guinea fowl share the same taxonomy, and similar physical attributes. So, it is easy to see how confusion ensued and resulted in both birds being referred to as turkeys. Even William Shakespeare used the wrong term in Henry IV, Part I--in Act II, Scene 1, a character incorrectly calls a guinea fowl a turkey. Clarity between the two birds finally arrived in Great Britain when both began to be farmed commercially.

Interestingly, the sharing of a name between the bird and a country is not exclusive to the United States. In France, the bird is known as a dinde, which is a contraction of the original d'Inde, meaning "of India". Both the Portuguese and some Indian dialects refer to turkey as peru. Cambodians call it moan barang which translates to “French chicken” and it’s dik habash in Levantine Arabic, meaning "the Ethiopian bird". And finally, what would you call a Turkish turkey? Well, that would be known as a hindi, but the history of how that came to be may be one to save, should it be necessary for upcoming conversations at Christmas dinner.