Chickens may be cowards, but turkeys are dumb, straight-talkers, often failures and sometimes winners. At least, that’s what American turkey expressions tell us. Clearly, we have a complicated relationship with turkeys. Despite being America’s holiday bird of choice, the turkey is often maligned in our idioms but sometimes revered too.
Though it’s disputed that any such conversation ever actually happened, there’s an old joke that captures the origins of the phrase “talking turkey,” which Mark Forsyth retells in a New York Times article:
There was a 19th-century American joke about two hunters — an American and a Native American — who go hunting all day but only get an owl and a turkey. So the American turns to his companion and says: “Let’s divide up. You get the owl and I get the turkey.” The Native American says: “No. Let’s do it the other way round.” So the American says, “O.K., I’ll get the turkey and you get the owl.” And the Native American replies, “You don’t talk turkey at all.”
Another theory is that the turkey’s unique gobble gave rise to the expression. Either way, from “talk turkey” came the phrase “cold turkey” beginning in the 1920’s relating to quitting something, usually drugs, outright. One explanation is that cold turkey requires little preparation, like quitting right away. Yet another explanation is that the pale, goose-pimply skin of an addict in withdrawal resembles that of a plucked turkey.
Then there’s “Gobbledygook,” which is an attempt to put into one word the nonsensical sounds that a turkey makes, coined in 1944 by a congressman calling for an end to the use of bureaucratic jargon. So in two expressions turkey talk means both very clear and very garbled language.
The turkey also embodies two other opposing characters: the winner and the looser. A failed movie is a “turkey,” a “turkey shoot” is a term for an easy target, yet “bowling a turkey” happens when a player bowls three strikes in a row. This apparently came out of depression era bowling alley promotions that gave away turkeys to game winners.
We eat turkeys not in lunch meat form only once or twice a year. So it’s no surprise that over time we have come up with a slew of idioms relating to the myth of this celebratory foul. But, it’s certainly curious how many opposite qualities we imbue this bird with. But enough of this gobbledygook, time for some turkey.