Wild turkeys travel in flocks. After being extensively hunted, they were reintroduced and are now numerous, occurring in every state except Alaska. ©Bob Leggett

Native to the United States and Mexico, the turkey has become our traditional main course on Thanksgiving all across our nation. So, how did a strictly North American bird come to share a moniker with a Eurasian country?

Mario Pei, a Columbia University professor of Romance languages, came up with two theories: One, in the 1500s, the American bird started to appear in Great Britain, shipped there by Eastern merchants who were mostly from Constantinople. Although those merchants had originally imported the bird from North America, since it wholesaled out of Turkey, the British referred to it as a “Turkey cock.” At that time, any product that made its way to London from the far side of the Danube was labeled “Turkey [fill in the blank].” For example, Persian carpets were called “Turkey rugs” and Indian flour was called “Turkey flour.” The name for the bird was subsequently shortened to just “Turkey.”


When the New World turkey was introduced to Europe by the Spanish in the 16th century, English speakers gave credit to the Turks: the Ottoman Empire was at its peak, and the English were in the habit of calling all sorts of things “Turkish.” “Meleagris gallopavo” became a “turkey cock”—and, eventually, just a “turkey.”

Theory two: Europeans had a wild fowl they liked to eat long before Christopher Columbus sailed to America. It came from Guinea, in Western Africa. This bird was termed a “Guinea fowl,” and it, too, was imported to Europe by Turkish merchants. Londoners gave it the nickname “Turkey cock,” because it came from Constantinople. When British settlers stepped off the Mayflower in Massachusetts Bay Colony and saw their first American woodland fowl, they decided to call it by the name they already used for the African bird (even though the native North American turkey is larger than the African guinea fowl).

Watch the video below from Think Fact, which illustrates the convoluted way in which our turkey may have acquired its name. It’s unfortunate that one of our native animals has never been bestowed with a truly American handle.

It might be time. Perhaps, taking a cue from Benjamin Franklin, we should call it the “courage bird.”

Happy Thanksgiving,