Fowl language: Thanksgiving, Deadly Viper, and how we got the word “turkey”

turkey3New posts have been noticeably absent here on semaphoric, and it has been some six months since I last updated the blog. What better time for a new entry than this Thanksgiving season. At the risk of disappointing my readers, I will not gush about the things I’m thankful for (even though there is an abundance to be thankful for). Rather, this entry is about origins. This is also about the recent Deadly Viper controversy. Although this controversy has been in the making for weeks, the situation still requires continuing reflection and critique.

Origins is about beginnings. Yet this is not about how we arrived at a certain physical reality. This is about how certain physical reality came to define a linguistic reality and how the interplay between the two strengthens the reality we perceive. In particular, this has to do with what and how we perceive what’s foreign and exotic and how we use words to caricaturize what seems different and strange to us. And this has to with the bird we eat on Thanksgiving, the turkey.

Coincidentally, the bird shares the same name as the country Turkey. Was the bird named after the country or the country after the bird? The answer to this chicken-or-egg question is difficult to ascertain. The word “Turkey” itself probably originated from an ancient Chinese word naming the people living in southern Central Asia. The geo-political entity of Turkey was never known as “Turkey” since demarcation of this country’s boundaries did not occur until the end of WWI. From the 13th century until the First World War, Turkey was simply known as Osman or the Ottoman Empire. However, the modern name for Turkey comes from the Medieval Latin turchia, and by the mid-1200’s, the word turki had appeared in the Old English lexicon to describe people who are part of the Turkic family group.

According to Bernard Lewis, the esteemed scholar and observer of the Middle East, on the eve of Thanksgiving in 1949, President Truman, who wanted to foster deeper diplomatic ties with Turkey (Turkey later joined NATO in 1952), presented a turkey to the president of Turkey. This American gesture of goodwill was received with perplexed head-scratching by the people of Turkey. Lewis goes on to observe the Turkish people surely “appreciated what was clearly meant as a friendly gesture, but they were puzzled when a large dead bird arrived at Cankaya, the Turkish presidential residence, delivered by a special diplomatic courier.”

What caused the bewilderment on the part of the Turks? This had to do with the American assumption that the Turkish people would of course know what a turkey is. In actuality, the word for turkey in Turkish is called hindi, or Indian. The bird turkey was not known in Europe until the early 1500’s when Portuguese traders first introduced it from Africa. These traders were also known as “Turkey merchants” since they ran trade in the Mediterranean Sea between Western Europe and the Ottoman Empire (which was also known as the land of the Turks). Why, then, is this bird with origins from Africa called by the name of a country in the Mediterranean Sea?

The turkeys that sit on our modern-day Thanksgiving tables are of a different sub-species than the African turkey. The first Europeans in the New World who came across the turkey misidentified it as the African type because it was the Portuguese, or the “Turkey merchants,” who first introduced the American species to Europe. Since the bird looked exotic, different, foreign, Westerners wanted a name befitting of this strange bird. Europeans called it “the Indian bird”, or dinde (d’Inde) in French since India, in the minds of European, embodied everything that was strange and exotic. The link to India is due to the common belief that America was part of Asia, and that the East was indeed exotic and foreign. This naming also found its equivalents in other languages. When the bird reached the Middle East, it became known in Arabic as dik habashi or dik rumi, that is, the Ethiopian bird or the Greek bird, when in fact the turkey has neither Ethiopian, Greek, Turkish, nor Indian origins. Turkey is simply from the Americas, the New World. As Bernard Lewis points out, “all these words simply mean something strange and exotic from a far and unknown place.”*

When a thing is exoticized, confusion about its origins follows. This confusion will only confound the discovery of true identity. Think of what this means in our own vernacular. The recent Deadly Viper controversy is an illustration of the exoticization that occurs when a majority culture misappropriates cultural symbols. The result is caricaturization and the loss of richness of a culture when stereotypes are employed. All this we can learn from the example of the turkey.

*See Benard Lewis’ essay, “Middle East Feasts” in From Babel to Dragomans.

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