The polysemous paragon, or How the turkey got its name

The topic is Turkey and the question is: Which came first, the country or the bird? The country. But the next question is: Why should an Old World country be associated with a New World bird? The answer is the same as with so many other things in the New World: we tend to name new things by referring to old things that we already know. It worked like this: “Say! That funny bird (Meleagris gallopavo) over there looks like what we call a turkey cock (Numida meleagris) back home.” It’s the same reason Americans suffer with such dreadfully dull city names (“I have a great idea! Let’s call this place New York. New Amsterdam was a silly name.”).

The turkey cock (also known as a African helmeted guineafowl) was so-called because it was at one time imported through Turkey. So the funny American bird might be called The Bird That Looks Like That Bird I Know From Back Home That We Used To Buy From Those People in Turkey. Which is mercifully abbreviated to: turkey.

Okay, that’s easy enough. Polysemy is the word that applies here, and it happens all the time. It refers to the situation when the same word has different meanings, and it’s particularly interesting when there is a non-obvious connection between the two meanings that has been obscured by time.

It’s a Bohemian coffee shop.
We are going Dutch.
Would you care for some Scotch?
I’ll get out the good china.
I would like a Danish.
I am a Danish (cf. Ich bin ein Berliner)

But the really entertaining thing about the turkey is that it is some kind of champion polyseme. The word for turkey in Portuguese is peru. The French word is dinde (from d’Inde, meaning “from India”). The Turkish word for turkey is hindi. What is it about this bird that makes place names stick to it so thoroughly? Is there a reason why birds we eat get place names (Rhode Island reds, Cornish game hens) whereas birds we don’t eat get descriptive names (red-headed woodpeckers, yellow-rumped warblers)? And finally, is turkey an instance of metonymous polysemy or not?

I got launched onto this delightful topic by an entertaining and widely-cited article, How Turkey Got Its Name by Giancarlo Casale. It’s well worth reading.

(The picture shown here is a Meleagris gallopavo that started visiting my front yard last fall. You can just make out my daughter peeking out of our living room window.)

One thought on “The polysemous paragon, or How the turkey got its name”

  1. Awesome post!! But there’s still no explanation for Freedom Fries.

    Speaking of renaming food, how about Salisbury Steak for Hamburger(Ich bin ein Hambuger!) during World War I? I thought they renamed the Frankfurter (and Winer?)to Hot Dog then, but can’t find a source.

    And a “Pariser” in German means an inhabitant of Paris, although it has other meanings as well:

    umgangssprachlich als Verballhornung der Kurzform Präser von Präservativ ein Kondom

    Good times.

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