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The Mistake that Gave Turkey (the Bird) the Same Name as Turkey (the Nation)

turkey

If you’ve ever visited Turkey, you probably ate shwarma, but it’s unlikely that you were served a crispy, golden turkey leg. The former center of the Ottoman Empire isn’t exactly a breeding ground for the bird that Americans associate with Thanksgiving. In fact, the turkey is native to North America.

So why do they share the same name?

First, let’s get the facts on the two turkeys. Meleagris gallopavo is an odd-looking bird that is known for his bare head, wattle, and iridescent plumage. As in many species, the male turkey has feathers that are brighter than the female. The republic of Turkey straddles Asia and Europe and has coastline along the Black Sea, the Mediterranean, and the Aegean. Its capital city is Ankara.

Here’s how they are related. In the 1540s, the guinea fowl, a bird with some resemblance to the Thanksgiving avian, was imported from Madagascar through Turkey by traders known as turkey merchants. The guinea fowl was also nicknamed the turkey fowl. Then, the Spanish brought turkeys back from the Americas by way of North Africa and Turkey, where the bird was mistakenly called the same name. Europeans who encountered the bird in the Americas latched on to the “turkey fowl” name, and the term was condensed simply to “turkey.” Turkeys have fared better than their guinea fowl relatives on the international scene, perhaps explaining why you probably have never heard of guinea fowl until right now.

The Turkish name for the bird is hindi, which literally means “Indian.” This name likely derived from the common misconception that India and the New World were one and the same.

The turkey’s acceptance into the Old World happened quickly. By 1575, the English were enjoying the North American bird at Christmas dinner.

We want to acknowledge, as some commenters have noted, that our previous explanation of “turkey” confusion was a bit, well, confusing. We hope that our revisions are clearer. We at the Hot Word aren’t too chicken to admit when our writing is a turkey; hopefully, with our meatier explanation, your appetite for nomenclature knowledge is sated (let us know if you’re still confused.)

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218 Comments

  1. Tina Stephanie -  March 26, 2014 - 7:02 am

    Hi, I am Tina Stephanie !!!
    … One boy is killing my head in fb by speaking in turkey he is sayin something in turkish language .. so, I dont understand !!
    Am from America, california , los angeles …
    So I dont know turkish language !!!
    so please anyone can tell me how to say” I dont know turkish language I am american” .. in turkish language please !!

    Reply
    • palanci -  April 10, 2014 - 6:14 am

      Hello… i am from Turkey……
      Ben türkce bilmiyorum, ben amerikaliyim….
      means: i dont know turkish, iam american…..

      Reply
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    Reply
  3. Ash -  December 3, 2013 - 2:42 pm

    The capital USED to be Istanbul, but it’s been Ankara since the Ottoman Empire fell in 1923.

    Reply
  4. setare -  December 2, 2013 - 2:25 am

    Ankara is not the capital of turkey. Istanbul is the capital which is a beautiful city.

    Reply
  5. wolf tamer and tree puncher -  November 28, 2013 - 10:22 pm

    Happy Thanksgiving everybody! If you like pie, post :O-v in your comment. The :O is a face with the mouth open, and the -v is a hand holding a slice of pie. I am thankful for the freedom to worship God.

    @hale:
    Huh. Isn’t Hindu a religion? Or does Hindu mean Indian and the religion in Turkish?

    Reply
  6. Murat Tanyel -  November 28, 2013 - 8:19 pm

    It looks like in many languages this bird is named according to where people thought it came from. I just found out from friends on TrekEarth that in France it is “dinde” derived from “de l’Inde,” referring to the West Indies. In Flemish, it is “kalkoen” because they thought that the bird came from the Indian city of Calcutta.

    Reply
  7. Sanjay -  November 28, 2013 - 5:24 am

    Hi
    I am an Indian, and as far as I understand, the word ‘Hindi ‘ as an adjective does mean Indian,or pertaining to ‘Hind’ – another name for India.This includes the name of our national language, which is called ‘HINDI’.

    The word ‘Hindu’ refers to a follower of the Hindu faith – the major faith of India. So a person could be a Hindi
    as well as a Hindu
    as well as be speaking Hindi !
    An American could also be a Hindu,without being a Hindi :)

    Reply
  8. Taylan -  November 27, 2013 - 8:48 pm

    Turkey is called Hindi in Turkish which is literally used short for India.The writer of the article is right about his statement of why we call turkey as Hindi.Just to let you know Mrs Hale.Across Arabia, they call bird “diiq Hindi,” or the “Indian rooster.”
    In Russia, it’s “Indjushka,” bird of India.
    In Poland, “Inyczka”— again “bird from India.In Turkey, “Hindi” again short for India.

    Reply
  9. Taylan -  November 27, 2013 - 8:37 pm

    Turkey is called Hindi in Turkish which is literally used short for India.The writer of the article is right about his statement of why we call turkey as Hindi.Just to let you know Mrs Hale.

    Reply
  10. Joy -  November 27, 2013 - 7:37 pm

    LOL that is so funny. Some mistakes actually turn out well, then.

    Reply
  11. Tanish -  November 27, 2013 - 6:45 pm

    I think I did’t understand the story

    Reply
  12. Tony Bruguier -  November 27, 2013 - 3:46 pm

    Well, in French it’s called “dinde”, from “d’Inde” which translates to “From India”.

    Reply
  13. Harish -  November 27, 2013 - 5:30 am

    U are right Hale.. Hindi doesn’t mean Indian.But might not mean HINDU either.Indian is Bharatiya or Hindustani.

    Reply
  14. taleh -  November 26, 2013 - 10:00 pm

    Hi, I am also Turk (Azerbaijani), and we called turkey as “hindushka”. It derives from the words “hind” – “Indian” and “gush” – “fowl”. “ka”- comes from Russian and plays a role to condense the word. So “hindushka” means “Indian fowl”.

    Reply
  15. anonymous -  November 26, 2013 - 4:32 pm

    Actually, not to contradict you, hale, but Hindi is a word for Indian, correct, and Hindu is the nationality. I know my wording is difficult, but thanks to those people who just understood! And no offense to anyone who took any.

    Reply
  16. hale -  November 26, 2013 - 3:16 pm

    Hi there, I am a Turk myself, and I found the article quite funny. A correction from me. The translation of turkey is hindi, but it doesn’t mean Indian. Indian is HINDU in Turkish.

    Reply
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