What the Origin of the Turkey’s Name Says About Globalization

Ever wonder why the plump bird that is so iconic of Thanksgiving is named after the country of Turkey? Well, the origins say a lot about the nature of globalization, which, for better and worse, arguably first began with the European Age of Exploration.

The turkey is one of several things making up the “Columbian Exchange” — the widespread transfer of plants, animals, technology, and people between the Americas and the “Old World” that began 15th century following Columbus’ arrival to the Western Hemisphere. Other examples of “New World” items include corn, tomatoes, potatoes, chocolate, tobacco, and cotton. (The turkey was one of the few animals to go from New World to Old, as Europe, Africa, and Asia had more domesticated animals.)

There are two theories as to the origin of the name. One is that when Europeans first encountered the turkey, they incorrectly identified it as a type of guineafowl, a related bird that originated in Africa but was imported into Europe via the Ottoman Empire — hence they were called “turkey fowl”, or just “turkey” for short.

The other theory holds that turkeys were delivered to Western Europe by merchants from the Ottoman Empire, who had managed to domesticate the bird successfully. The importers were known as “Turkey merchants” after their land of origin, and the bird thus called “Turkey birds” or, soon afterward, “turkeys”.

What is even more interesting (to me anyway) is that different countries name the turkey after the people or places through which they first encountered it.

Thus, in Turkey itself, as well as France, Italy, and Russia, (among others) the turkey is called some variation of “Hindu” or “Indian”, either because it resembled fowls from India and/or because the Americas were initially called, and believed to be, India.

In Dutch, Indonesian, Finnish, and the Scandinavian languages, the turkey is named after the Indian city of Calcutta / Kolkata, a major trading hub known for exotic wares.

In Malaysia, it is called the “Dutch” bird, after Dutch traders; in Arabic, the “Roman” or “Ethiopian” bird; in Cambodia, the “French” bird (since the French colonizers introduced it there); and in India, Pakistan, Portugal and Croatia the “Peru”, which is probably the closest in geographic proximity.

Many other places have non-geographic names for the turkey: in Japanese and Korean, it is called the “seven-faced bird” (not entirely sure why; in Mandarin Chinese, it has several names, including “fire chicken” and “cough up a ribbon” chicken; in German, it is named after the call hunters used to lure the bird, “trut”; in Persian / Farsi, it is delightfully called “booghalamoon” after the sound it makes; and in Thai, it is called “Kai Nguang”, or “elephant trunk chicken”.

The Spanish came close biologically speaking by calling the turkey “pavo”, which means peafowl, a related genus of birds.

Please note that these are generalities: given that globalization has introduced a lot of new words into other languages (especially from American English), plenty of people across the world may refer to the turkey as we do.


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