(Note: This post originally appeared on the Grammarphobia Blog on Thanksgiving Day in 2009.)
Q: I love turkey, especially drumsticks, so here’s my question for Turkey Day: Why is a loser called a turkey?
A: Let’s begin with the bird. It’s called a turkey because the American species was confused with the guinea fowl, which was thought to have been imported from Turkish territory.
A 1655 book about food and diet, cited in the Oxford English Dictionary, says guinea fowl “were first brought from Numidia into Turky, and thence to Europe, whereupon they were called Turkies.” (Numidia was an ancient Berber kingdom in North Africa.)
In the 19th century, the term “turkey” was often used figuratively in colloquial expressions that were generally positive.
To “talk turkey,” for instance, initially meant to speak agreeably or use high-flown language. Now, of course, it means to speak frankly or get down to business. And to “walk turkey” meant to strut or swagger.
In the early 20th century, the expression “cold turkey” came to mean plain truth as well as a method of treating drug addicts by sudden withdrawal.
And let’s not forget “Turkey Day,” which showed up in 1870 in the Hartford Courant: “To-morrow is turkey day, gobbler’s day, or the day when the gobbler is gobbled.”
So when did the word “turkey” get its bad rep?
In the 1920s, “turkey” came to be used as slang for an inferior theatrical or movie production. In other words, a flop.
The first published reference in the OED for this usage is from a 1927 issue of Vanity Fair: “ ‘A turkey’ is a third rate production.”
Here’s a citation from a 1939 letter written by Groucho Marx: “The boys at the studio have lined up another turkey for us…. I saw the present one the other day and didn’t care much for it.”
In the mid-20th century, the word came to mean an inept or worthless person. The earliest OED citation for this usage is from 1951:
“So, if you got a collector [of internal revenue] through the civil service system who was a real turkey, you’d be stuck with that turkey practically until he died.”
As for your question, why a turkey? We don’t know for sure, but here’s one theory.
As any hunter can tell you, the wild turkey is one of the wiliest creatures around, so wily that it’s unlikely to end up at your neighborhood grocery store.
During the 20th century, however, more and more of the turkeys that reached Thanksgiving tables were of the farmed variety – fat, klutzy, and flightless – not those lean, mean, cunning birds of the wild.