Simanaitis Says

On cars, old, new and future; science & technology; vintage airplanes, computer flight simulation of them; Sherlockiana; our English language; travel; and other stuff


HAVE YOU EVER wondered why the U.S. traditional Thanksgiving bird shares its name with a Eurasian country on the shores of the Bosphorus? Me too.

This calls for some timely research.


Today’s Republic of Turkey lies predominantly on the Anatolian peninsula of Western Asia; a smaller part is on the Balkan peninsula of Southeast Europe. The region has been inhabited since the Stone Age.


Originally a church, then a mosque, today a museum, the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul was built in 537 A.D. by Byzantine Emperor Justinian. Photo by Dennis Jarvis.

Turkey gets its name from the ancient Göktürks (Celestial Turks), 8th-century people of Central Asia. The English name Turkey dates from the late 14th century; it has cognates of Turquie in French, Türkei in German, Turchia in Italian and Турция in Russian.


Meleagris gallopavo, the North American turkey. Image by John James Audubon as Plate 1 of The Birds of America, 1827.

The turkey, Meleagris gallopavo, is a North American bird related to pheasants, grouse and junglefowl found throughout the world. There are two theories about its name, both relating to mistaken identity.

One conjecture: Europeans coming to the New World mistook these birds for Turkey coqs, guineafowl already imported into Europe by Turkish merchants. The other is that Meleagris gallopavo had already been taken to the Middle East and domesticated, again, with Turkish merchants involved.

By the 17th century, the bird’s name had stuck. Shakespeare calls one of his characters “a turkey-cock in his pride proper” in Twelfth Night, written around 1601.

Other languages, though, didn’t fall for this Turkish merchant jazz. Their languages recognize that Columbus thought he had encountered India when he sailed the ocean blue in 1492. Hence, the name for Cleveland’s baseball team.

The French word for the turkey is dinde. Put in a lost apostrophe, d’inde, and its etymology is clear: “of India.” In Arabic, it’s diiq Hindi, “Indian rooster.” The Russian word for turkey is индейка, “bird of India.” And, in Turkey, they call the bird a Hindi.


Benjamin Franklin, noted dissenter of the bald eagle as a U.S. national symbol. Portrait by Joseph Duplessis, c. 1785.

There’s a folk legend that our Founding Fathers considered the turkey, rather than the bald eagle, as our national bird. Indeed, Benjamin Franklin didn’t think much of the ultimate choice: “For my own part I wish the Bald Eagle had not been chosen the Representative of our Country. He is a Bird of bad moral Character. He is a rank coward. The little King Bird not bigger than a Sparrow attacks him boldly and drives him out of the district.”

However, balancing the score, at least a little, Wife Dottie doesn’t think much of turkeys either. When she was a three-year-old growing up on a southern California ranch, she was flogged by one.

In the CD Stan Freberg Presents the United States of America, its First Thanksgiving tale relates a cook’s terrible mistake: A nice bald eagle dinner was originally planned; the turkey was the centerpiece. Too scrawny a main course? Yes, but the cook makes up for it by stuffing the turkey.

To my readers in the U.S., have a thoughtful Thanksgiving tomorrow, stuffing and all. To other readers around the world, I trust you are thankful too for whatever you enjoy at dinner, whatever you call it. ds

© Dennis Simanaitis,, 2016

One comment on “MORE THAN ONE TURKEY

  1. Mike B
    November 23, 2016

    Where’s Stan Freberg when we need him?! His type of actually entertaining satire doesn’t seem to exist any more though Colbert came close on a good day.

    And those turkeys … they’re all over town here, wandering in the streets etc. Geese too. Thought the latter were supposed to go south for the winter … climate change? No predators of consequence, can’t be hunted in-town (which I think they know in their bird brains), and they’re big enough to threaten deer-type damage to your vehicle should you hit one.

    The bald eagle WAS a better choice. It seems to have more of a purpose in life. Whether that’s appropriate as a national symbol is open to question, though the discussion is closed. FWIW many other countries have predators for national emblems, too.

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