For a species of bird found only in the forests of North America and so symbolic of a U.S. holiday, the humble turkey sure has an oddly Eurasian name — but have you ever stopped to consider why? Well, it turns out that the origins of how this jowly bird arrived at its strikingly Turkish title reflect the history of its international popularity. The misnomer, as you well know, has yet to be corrected — making turkeys one of the most curiously named birds on the planet.
To pin down an answer to why one of North America’s most celebrated birds came to be named after a distant nation all one has to do is look at the history of global commerce.
Centuries ago, Constantinople was an important hub of international trade, where merchants sold goods from Africa and the Far East to distributors in Europe. These products, instead of retaining a sense of their origin, often became known by the nationality of the exporters. For example, Persian rugs sold wholesale by Turkish vendors were called “Turkish rugs.” In turn, one popular type of bird shipped from Africa, called a Guinea fowl, became known as “Turkey cock” throughout England.
And, when British settlers arrived in the New World and encountered a large woodland bird that looked a bit like the Guinea fowl fowl they’d grown fond of eating back in England — perhaps out of confusion that the two were the same species, or maybe in longing for something familiar so far from home — they ended up referring to this bird as a “Turkey cock” too. Later, it was shortened to simply ‘turkey’.
Another factor that helped perpetuate this unusual choice of names occurred when these new North American birds became a popular commodity throughout the world — sure enough, mostly by way of Turkish merchants.
But it turns out that English speakers weren’t the only ones to name these birds based on a bit of misinformation. To add to the multicultural flair of this native North American species, turkeys became known as peru in Portuguese. Sixteenth century importers in Portugal were apparently under the impression that that was where the birds originated from.
Ironically, the name of turkeys in the Turkish language is even more geographically off base; their called Hindi, short for “bird from India.” The Turks, better than anyone, knew the birds weren’t from their homeland, but may have originally thought they came from India — thanks to a little miscalculation by Columbus.
In the end, for the birds themselves it matters little by what moniker we refer to them — though I suspect they would prefer to be called anything but ‘dinner’.