Thursday, November 25, 2010


On this Thanksgiving evening, I am enjoying a detoxifying soak in a big tub filled to the brim with hot water and mugwort (쑥). To replace the liters of sweat that are exiting my body, I'm already on my third Arnold Palmer—there's nothing like Southern sweet tea mixed with fresh-squeezed lemonade to replace those electrolytes (and help wash down mind-boggling quantities of my family's delicious Thanksgiving feast, which consisted of dishes such as turkey and stuffing and honeybaked ham and candied yams, of course, as well as 곰탕 and Korean pumpkin soup).

Incidentally, I'm also wondering why I brought home so many books knowing that I would be studying so little here. Between Niki's antics and Mother's almond-lemon zest madeleines, I'm probably too distracted to start preparing much for finals. On the bright side, I'm finished at last with my final paper for Cinema of Migration (though there's still so much I don't understand about "local ethnicities" and queer theory and Stuart Hall). One last read-through tomorrow morning and then I'll send it in.

On another, more seasonal note: I was wondering today—while deciding between gravy and cranberry sauce—what the turkey is called in Turkey. Probably not the türkiye, right? (Could you imagine a bird called the america?) I could have just called Besi, but I decided to first do some research online. As it turns out, the etymology of this bird's name is quite interesting—at least more interesting than its taste, in my humble opinion.

Below are a few excerpts from The Straight Dope's article on this issue:
Despite several crackpot theories to the contrary, the bird was named after the country, but in a very roundabout way so that the details are uncertain. Oh, one other thing I know for sure: No European should ever have been allowed to name any New World species. The Aztecs, who kept domesticated turkeys for hundreds of years before the Europeans arrived, had a perfectly good word for the bird in their Nahuatl language: xuehxolotl, which, of course, is pronounced. Don't ask me how it's pronounced, but I'm sure it can be done. If the Europeans had been smart enough to stick with the original name, there would have been no need for me to write this Staff Report, and on Thanksgiving we'd sit down to "xuehxolotl with all the trimmings."  Oh, the things that might have been. 
It's likely the first bird called "turkey" in English wasn't the familiar Thanksgiving fowl (Meleagris gallopavo), but a smaller domesticated bird originally from sub-Saharan Africa: (Numida meleagris), which we now call the Guinea fowl. This bird was introduced to the Mediterranean in ancient times and was known (as a rarity) to the Greeks and Romans. It was named after the mythical Meliagrides, who were the sisters of Meleager and who were turned to birds after his death. This bird seems to have disappeared from Europe and was reintroduced from west Africa by Portuguese traders at the end of the fifteenth century. If this bird was from Africa, why was it called "turkey" in English? Probably because it was introduced to England by so-called "Turkey merchants" who traded with the Mediterranean region, including the Ottoman Empire (which then controlled the eastern third of that sea). 
M. gallopavo was introduced to Spain from America sometime between 1498 and 1526 (but most likely before 1511), and thence to England sometime between 1520 and 1541 (but probably before 1530). It too was named "turkey" in English, perhaps because it was confused with N. meleagris, or because it was likewise introduced by Turkey merchants. In citations from the Oxford English Dictionary, "turkey" dates from 1541, but it is unclear which species is meant. 
English is not the only language that incorrectly associates the turkey with Turkey. Welsh borrowed the English usage and calls the bird twrki. But it is interesting that many other languages incorrectly associate the bird with other countries. In many languages (including Turkish and French), the bird is called by names indicating it's from India. This may derive from the confusion between the East Indies and West Indies that was rampant in those days. In fact, one of the early Spanish names, gallina de las Indias, means "hen of the Indies." But other languages (such as Dutch and Danish) are strangely specific in calling the bird by names indicating the bird is from the Indian city of Calicut. At that time, Calicut was the most important city for the trade between Europe and India. So it would not have been unreasonable for Western Europeans to assume that anything exotic came from Calicut, or more generally, from India. 
In Portuguese, the bird is called peru, despite the fact that the bird was not introduced to Peru until after the Spanish conquest. The most reasonable explanation for the association is that the bird became popular in Portugal shortly after Pizarro conquered Peru in 1532, and the Portuguese made a natural assumption. In Brazilian slang, peru can also means "penis," which must make life interesting along the Brazil-Peru border. One word for the bird in one of the several dialects of Hindi is also peru or piru, which is probably borrowed from Portuguese. That makes sense, since the turkey was introduced to India by the Portuguese (sometime before 1612). 
Lest you think the scientific name of the turkey makes more sense than the common ones, it is my duty to inform you that it is perhaps even more messed up. Meleagris gallopavo is composed of the names of three different birds, none of them the turkey. Meleagris was the ancient Greek name of the Guinea fowl (mentioned above). For hundreds of years, European naturalists believed the turkey was a kind of Guinea fowl, for reasons that are not entirely clear. Gallopavo was one of the early Spanish names for the turkey (often spelled gallipavo). Gallo- comes from gallus, the Latin word for the common barnyard fowl (chicken), Gallus domesticus. And -pavo comes from Latin word for the blue peacock, whose scientific name is Pavo cristatus
I think it's fascinating that the etymology of this strange-looking bird's name can serve as a linguistic window into colonial trade and cultural preconceptions—beyond the examples cited above, many other languages attribute the turkey's origins to a country or region considered particularly exotic in that culture. For instance:
  • In Arabic, it is called dīk rūmī (ديك رومي) meaning “Roman rooster” (in which “Roman” historically referred to the Greek-speaking Eastern Roman Empire and later to the geographic areas that now comprise Turkey), or, less commonly, “Ethiopian bird”.
  • In colloquial Egyptian Arabic, it is called the “Greek bird”.
  • In French, it is called (la) dinde, which comes from (poulet) d’Inde or (chicken) from India.
  • In Greek, it is gallopoúla (γαλοπούλα), which means “French chicken”.
  •  In Hebrew, the turkey is called tarnegol hodu (תרנגול הודו), literally meaning “Indian rooster”.
  • In Malay, it is called either “Ayam Piru” from the Portuguese name for the bird or “Ayam Belanda” (Dutch chicken).
  • In Russian, it is called indeyka (индейка), relating to the Native American Indian (индеец).
  • In Vietnamese, it is called gà tây, meaning “Western chicken”.

Pretty cool, right? (Or maybe I'm just a huge dork.)