Lexicon Valley

What’s the Word for Turkey in Turkish?

The bird in question.

Wikimedia Commons

You’ve probably noticed that a certain seasonally appropriate bird and a country on the Mediterranean have strikingly similar names. Is this a coincidence or is there some deeper funny business going on?

Let’s start with the simple part: The word for turkey in Turkish is hindi.

What? OK, so what’s the Hindi word for turkey?

Turns out that the word for turkey in Hindi is टर्की. And that, if you don’t know Devanagari, is transcribed ṭarkī in the Latin alphabet. Which looks an awful lot like turkey again.

What the heck is happening here?

Turkeys are native to the Americas, but the Europeans first encountering them thought that they looked like a kind of guinea fowl, another large, ungainly, colorful-faced kind of bird. You can see the resemblance:

The helmeted guinea fowl.

Wikimedia Commons

Now, guinea fowl were also called turkey fowl, but that’s because they actually had a legitimate connection to Turkey the country: Europeans received most of their guinea fowl imported via Turkey. And because there’s a limit to real logic, the original guinea fowl kept that name, but the new kind of guinea fowl (which weren’t actually guinea fowl at all) ended up with the other version: turkey fowl, which became just turkey. It helped that the first turkeys brought to Europe also generally came via Turkey: The birds had originally been domesticated by the Aztecs and were brought to Europe by Spanish conquistadores, who traded them to the rest of the continent via North Africa and, yes, Turkey.

So what about the Turkish name, hindi?

Well, it was probably influenced by the French dinde, from poulet d’inde “chicken of India,” which itself is from some combination of trade via India and the Columbusian misconception that the Americas were eastern Asia.

But English, Turkish, Hindi, and French aren’t the only languages with geographical confusion over the origin of this gobbling bird. Irish and Welsh call it after Turkey, but that’s probably just borrowing via English. Armenian, Hebrew, Italian, Polish, and Russian also refer to it as some sort of Indian bird, while Dutch, Indonesian, Icelandic, and Lithuanian get slightly more specific with their inaccurate Indian geographical references and call it a bird of Calicut. Khmer and Scottish Gaelic, on the other hand, call it a French chicken, Malay calls it a Dutch chicken, and various dialects of Arabic refer to it as a Roman, Greek, or Ethiopian chicken. The most sensible of the geographically confused names are the languages that name it after Peru, including Croatian, Hawaiian, and Portuguese. I mean, at least Peru is on the right continental landmass, even if it’s home to the Incas while it was the Aztecs who domesticated the turkey.

There are a few other common but strange origins of names for the turkey, culled from the delightful Wikipedia entry List of Names for the Wild Turkey in different languages: Japanese and Korean call it the equivalent of “seven-faced bird,” Abkhazian and other languages in the Caucasus call it “blue bird,” and Thai and Urdu call it “elephant chicken” or “elephant trunk chicken.”

But the prize for least confused name for the turkey must be split between two naming strategies: on the one hand, Persian for the onomatopoeic booghalamoon, and on the other, Blackfoot and Cree, which both have variants on “large bird.”

And the Aztec (Nahuatl) word that started it all? Well, it’s huehxōlōtl, but I can’t find an origin for it from another word. Which might be because I don’t speak any Nahuatl, but it makes sense, really. The origin of turkey in English is quite transparent, but that of chicken or, for that matter, bird are murkier, because the longer you’ve had a word for something, the harder it is to know where it came from. So it wouldn’t be surprising if the origin of the word for “turkey” is now obscure in Nahuatl and other languages spoken in its original pecking-grounds.

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