Talking Some Turkey
Happy Thanksgiving Everyone!
Let’s talk turkey. There are no turkeys in Turkey. In fact, the large bird we know as a turkey is native to only two places in the world: the wild turkey of eastern and cental North America and the ocellated (having eye-like markings) turkey of the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico (Source: Wikipedia).
The scientific name for a wild turkey is Meliagris gallopavo, which becomes (more or less) the national bird of the United States on the last Thursday of November. It’s interesting that both the common and scientific names of the Thanksgiving bird originate from foreign sources. The common name comes from the country of Turkey. The error in naming the bird comes from the fact that the Pilgrims mistook the Meliagris gallopavo they saw roaming the forests as a species of guinea fowl. But the Pilgrims, natives of England, called guinea fowl Turkeys. Keep reading to learn why.
(Wild turkeys do resemble guinea fowl. Both have bald wattled heads, a grating, sometimes gobbling cry, and a stiff-legged strut. Case in point: friend and fellow seminarian Frank S. once mistook a farmer’s domesticated guinea hen for a wild turkey and shot it, making the farmer very unhappy).
Guinea fowl are native to the Guinea coast of Africa, and had been introduced into England by Turkish traders and were accordingly called Turkey fowl, Turkey hens, Turkey cocks by the English consumers.
So it is that we celebrate our first national holiday under a Turkish brand name.
When we use the scientific name, which literally means “Meleager’s guinea cock,” this too has a foreign source. It turns out that Meleager was one of the heroes who sailed with Jason on the Argo. Caught in the middle of a violent struggle between jealous gods, Meleager dies, a physically fit young man. His sisters set up such a discordant howl of grief that Artemis, who apparently disliked loud wailing, changed them into guinea fowl.
Or was it turkeys?
Source: A Browser’s Dictionary, John Ciardi, 1980, page 394. Harper & Row, New York.
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