Talking Turkey: new foods in the Old World

It sounds like the setup to a bad joke: What’s named after India in Turkey, and Peru in India? But the answer is even more absurd: it’s what we call “turkey” in English-speaking countries. The several categories of names throughout Eurasian languages for the meleagris gallopavo — the inventive and inaccurate binomial meaning “guineafowl rooster-peacock” — serve up a juicy etymological framework for understanding some of  the ways that languages adapt to a new food.  

For a bit of context: the bird comes from North America, across a territory stretching from central Ontario, across much of the U.S., and through to central Mexico. Along with tomatoes, potatoes, corn, and squash, the turkey was brought to Europe in the early sixteenth century.

So how did this new-world galliform come to be called turkey? According to several sources including the Online Etymology Dictionary, it has to do with birds being from Ottoman — that is, Turkish — lands in North Africa. Originally the cargo were the unrelated though similar-looking guineafowl, which were coming to be named turkey cocks after the traders who brought them. But then the Turks started bringing the meatier, bigger New World bird up from Spain, and the name transferred to this bird.

>> In Arabic it’s dik rumi, “Roman chicken,” for essentially the same reason. Rum derives from “Rome,” which in this case refers to the last vestige of the Roman Empire, the Byzantines, and by extension the empire that took their place, the Ottomans. So, it would seem the Turks brought the bird not just to England but also to other parts of their empire. Arabic uses geography to refer to other near-foreign foods, such as tamar hindi, meaning “Indian date,” which we took as “tamarind.”

Speaking of hindi, that’s the term that Turkish and several other languages use to name a turkey, but for an even more wrong reason than “turkey.” Remember that Columbus and company were sailing west to find "the Indies" and the spices they promised. For a good while it was thought by many that the lands they’d found were indeed adjacent to the Spice Isles, you know, the Indies. Accordingly, the French considered this bird poulet de l’inde — Indian chicken. In addition to the modern French dinde, many other countries maintain the misunderstanding: Russian indeyka, Hebrew tarnegol hodu (“rooster of India”), and Turkish hindi being among over a dozen examples.

>> This is hardly the only instance of New World foods being attributed to what was being sought in the Indies. As told in many sources including Howard Zinn’s People’s History of the United States, the closest thing Columbus found to the zing of the peppercorn he so desperately sought from Asia was the chile, which he called pimiento, just like the thing he was seeking — and hence why we and several others, very confusingly, also call it “pepper.” We’re also still dealing with Columbus’ legacy of calling the people he encountered Indios.

Back to the bird. So we call it turkey, the Turks name it hindi...and the Hindi language calls it pīru, as in Peru, the country. WTF? Blame...the Portuguese! According to a Straight Dope article, the bird spread to their corner of the Iberian peninsula right around when the Spanish conquistador Pizarro invaded South American land of that name in 1523, and they incorrectly assumed the bird had come from there. (Had they had the right info, they might be roasting mexicos in Lisbon and Rio to this day.) The Portuguese then brought the bird, and its na. At least a few other languages have a Peru-derived name for the bird, including Hawaiian pelehu and Croatian and Slovene puran, which itself comes from the Italian peruano. (Though the Italians call it tacchino, presumably an onomatopoeia.)

>> This isn’t the only time that something’s been named for an geopolitical event that’s thematically related. The Baked Alaska, with a core of ice cream under a baked merignue topping, was named, and possibly invented, in 1876 at Delmonico’s in New York to celebrate the purchase of the territory. (Amusingly, there’s also now a Frozen Florida, which uses microwaves to heat a liqueur blend under a frozen meringue shell.)

Can the turkey story get weirder? Through one more iteration of the thought-it-came-from-there game, it sure can! Several Northern European languages name it after Calicut, the trading port on India’s west coast. Michael Quinion of World Wide Words surmises that folks from Northern Europe had heard about this tasty Indian bird and assumed that Vasco de Gama had brought it back to Europe on his travels a few decades prior, and now we have Dutch kalkoen, Lithuanian kalakutas, and even colonial influences like Indonesian kalkun and, head-spinningly, Sinhala kalukuma — despite the fact that this Sri Lankan language is spoken mere hundreds of miles from Calicut. So, what we call turkey, the Turks call hindi, Hindi calls peru, the Dutch name after a city in India... and the road ends in Malay, which call it ayam belanda, meaning... “Dutch chicken.”

>> The potato has also on occasion found its local name based on the intermediary who brought it there: Hungarian burgonya probably comes from Burgundy, and Czech brambor from Brandenburg.

The turkey uses the "name it after somewhere" technique a whole lot more than any other food I've seen. ("Greece" doesn't count, silly.) Three other common three ways to name a New World food in Eurasian languages are to give it a name in reference to something familiar, give over an existing name to that new food, or be novel and actually try to call it what it’s called in its native land.

Various languages offer some amusing interpretations of the turkey in the words available to them: Urdu feel murgh (“elephant chicken”), Swahili bata mzinga (“great duck”), Mandarin both huoji (“fire chicken”) and much more creatively if less commonly tushouji (“cough-up-a-ribbon chicken”), and the bizarre Japanese shichimencho (“seven-faced bird”). Then there’s the diminutive in Bosnian and Serbian, ćuretina (“little chicken”).

>> The potato and the tomato followed particular structures in reference to a familiar food product. In both case, apples are a common reference. Potato in French is pomme de terre (“apple of the earth”), Dutch aardappel and Hebrew tapuach adama are calques — word-for-word transpositions — of the French. Very similarly, the archaic German grundbirne (“ground-pear”) gave rise to the current krompir in several Balkan languages. Tomatoes get a more fanciful treatment: Italian pomodoro (“golden apple”) becaome Russian pomidor, and the similar Hungarian paradicsom (“paradise apple”) and Croatian rajčica (“heaven apple”), both calqued from the also archaic German paradiesapfel.

The one instance I can find of the re-assigning of an existing name to the meleagris gallopavo is none other than Spanish, the language of the conquistadores who got us all into this mess in the first place. They call it simply pavo, which is what they used to call peacocks, whom they now distinguish as pavo real (“royal”).

>> This pattern occurs from time to time with other foods where the newcomer resembles and quickly supplants a native species in the pantry. For instance, the word in Indian subcontinental languages for potato is aloo, which is the name originally applied in Hindi to a type of yam. The Germans ceded a word for truffle, kartoffel, to the decidedly less gourmet spud, which then caught on in many Eastern European languages, including Russian and Polish.


The sixteenth century saw a major expansion of available foods unparalleled until the twentieth, when air travel and refrigerated (and frozen) transport made all sorts of perishable foods suddenly available very far away from its natural climate. But in contrast with the prior go-around, it appears that almost all languages have simply adopted the native name or a close variant of so many newly imported foods, like banana (Wolof banaana), avocado (from Nahuatl āhuacatl), and tilapia (from Tswana thiape). Heck, we even imported the name of a flavor sensation straight from Japanese: umami.

One angle worthy of further exploration is why some languages, including English, demonstrated a higher proclivity to hang on something close to the native name, notably tomato (Nahuatl tomatl) and potato (Carib batata, which first referred specifically to sweet potato). One thing’s for sure, we can forgive the speakers of Eurasian languages for not wanting to wrap their name around the word the Aztecs used for the turkey long before the conquistadores got at it: huehxōlōtla name that still lives, in the Mexican Spanish term guajolote.