Milan, 24 June 2022
I’m catching up with the last couple of week’s news – I’ve been much taken writing a rather heavy report on policy support for eco-industrial parks. Fascinating stuff, but pretty time-consuming.
Anyway, my eye was caught by an article about Turkey’s decision to change its official name (in English, at least) from Turkey to Türkiye. This is in line with an honourable tradition, as various places slough off names given to them during colonial times to adopt more local names. So some decades ago, for instance, Bombay became Mumbai and Madras Chennai (those are the changes I’m most familiar with in India, although I gather that quite a number of places there have localised their names). And quite recently, Swaziland became eSwatini. According to the king, the change was driven by a desire to fully break with the country’s colonial past, while ending international confusion between Swaziland and Switzerland.
In the case of Turkey, it’s not a reaction to a colonial past, or at least not obviously so. Rather, it seems that the country’s leader, Mr. Erdoğan, objects to the country having the same name as a vulgar fowl fit only to be eaten. Worse, “turkey” is used as an epithet to describe people who are (according to the Merriam-Webster dictionary) “stupid, foolish, or inept”. This is what I suspect Mr. Erdoğan – a proud and prickly person – really objects to. He senses that English-speaking people – and Americans in particular, given that this is an Americanism – unconsciously apply the epithet to his country (for the record, the epithet is also used of theatrical productions which are a flop, as in “Well, that musical is a real turkey!”, as well as of three successive strikes in bowling, as in “Wow, Bob, that’s your second turkey this evening, lucky for us you’re not on our bowling team!”).
I rather suspect that the epithet is linked to the bird, since at least the domesticated variety has a reputation for being pretty dumb. I remember once reading that turkeys are so stupid that when it rains they’ll look up and drown.
I’m sure this is an urban legend, but it gives readers a flavour of the generally low esteem in which the bird is held. It doesn’t help that we are shown photos like this of poor battery-raised turkeys.
I feel moved to come to the defence of this much maligned fowl. In its natural state, out in the wild, it’s a magnificent looking bird.
Here, we see a male turkey “strutting”, raising his feathers, like peacocks, as a mating ritual. The brilliantly coloured face is an absolute marvel. Here is a close-up.
And by the way, these colours can change, depending on whether the bird is calm or excited.
The female, as is often the case with birds, is more modest in her appearance.
Contrary to domesticated turkeys, the wild progenitors can fly – not far, but very fast.
So I really think we should stop thinking of the turkey as a stupid, dumb bird.
Coming back now to the issue which started this post, readers may be asking themselves why on earth the bird came to have the same name as Mr. Erdoğan’s country (well, I certainly asked myself that, which is why I’m writing this post …). It doesn’t come from Turkey or anywhere near there. The wild progenitor of today’s domesticated turkey was once very common throughout much of the United States and Central America.
Its spread to the rest of the world is yet another example of the Columbian Exchange, which I’ve written about in several previous posts: all those foodstuffs, plants and animals which were shipped from the Americas to Europe and then to the rest of the world (and all the diseases and enslaved people which were shipped the other way).
The Spaniards found an already domesticated turkey when they conquered Mexico and they brought it back to Europe, from whence it spread throughout the rest of the world.
At this point, let’s imagine that we come across new foodstuffs we’ve never seen before. Basically, there are two ways we’ll give names to these foodstuffs. Either we’ll adopt the local name (often modifying it in the process to fit our modes of speech) or we’ll give it a name based on other things we know which it reminds us of. Both approaches were used with the new foodstuffs which the Europeans discovered in the Americas. For instance, just considering English names, maize, potatoes, cassava, tomatoes, avocados, cacao, are all Anglicized versions of the local names – mahiz, batata, cazzábbi, in the language of the Taino people of the Caribbean islands (whose annihilation I alluded to a few posts ago); tomatl, ahuacatl, cacaua in Nahuatl, the language spoken in the Valley of Mexico and central Mexico at the time of the Spanish conquest. On the other hand, pineapples, peanuts, and bell peppers were given their names based on similarities in looks or tastes to known objects: pineapple was a name already used for pine cones, which look quite similar to smaller pineapples; peanuts were nuts that were pea-sized; anything with a peppery taste was called pepper.
The name “turkey” falls into the latter category. When the bird finally arrived in England, people confused it with another imported bird, the helmeted guineafowl.
Originally from Sub-Saharan Africa, the guineafowl was being imported to England from the Ottoman Empire by the Turkey Company, an English chartered company. Because of that, people often called them turkey cocks or turkey hens. The new arrival from the Americas quickly displaced the guineafowl and added insult to injury by also appropriating to itself the nickname. Thus did the British start raising a bird originally from the Americas which they called “turkey”, much to the future chagrin of Mr. Erdoğan.
His chagrin doesn’t finish with the British. There are of course all the other English-speaking countries which have adopted the same name for this American bird, foremost among them the United States. And then there are the other ex-British colonies; many of these have also adopted the name, suitably transliterated to fit their local languages. Thus, most of the languages from the Indian subcontinent call the bird ṭarki or turkee. So too have a number of languages used in ex-British colonies in Africa: for instance, we have toki in Igbo, tọki in Yoruba, tɔki in Krio, dɔkɔ in Ewe, uturuki in Swahili. And then we have a good number of countries which have no obvious connection to the UK but which for some reason have nevertheless adopted, with the usual linguistic adaptations, the British name for the bird: tierkei in Luxembourgish; ćurka in Serbian and Bosnian; turketi in Georgian; tirka in Kurdish; turīki in Amharic; tuorki in Khmer; tu la ki in Lao. All told, about 40% of the world’s population use the name “turkey” or some variant of it – although, in truth, some of the names have drifted so far from “turkey” as to be almost unrecognizable – some comfort, perhaps, to Mr. Erdoğan.
Luckily, another proud and prickly leader, Mr. Narendra Modi, Prime Minister of India, doesn’t seen to have noticed that a whole series of countries – including, I should note, Turkey – have instead named this “stupid bird” after India! Perhaps he has been too busy beating up on his country’s Muslim population.
I think this naming is the fault of the French, who named the American bird coq d’Inde (or poule d’Inde in the feminine). Later the coq and poule were dropped, as was the apostrophe, and the French simply called the bird dinde (with, as a further modification, dindon becoming the masculine version).
As usual, the French’s logic was impeccable – if we remember that Christopher Columbus confused everyone in Europe by claiming that he had reached the Indies when actually he had stumbled across the Americas. For quite a while thereafter, everything that came from the Americas was thought to come from the Indies (and in English at least this confusion lingers on in our calling the Caribbean islands the West Indies and calling the native populations of the Americas Indians). So when the French said this new bird came from the Indies they were correct given the knowledge of the time. But they were fundamentally wrong: a great example of “rubbish in, rubbish out”.
Unfortunately for any proud and prickly Indians – the real ones, the ones from India – the French’s innocent mistake has percolated into various other languages. Two of these are languages on France’s border, Catalan and Basque, where we have gall dindi and indioilarra, respectively. Then we have a cluster of languages from the ex-Russian Empire: Polish (indyk), Russian (indeyka), Ukrainian (indychka), Belarusian (indyčka), Kyrgyz (ündük), and Armenian (hndkahav). Finally, we have three countries – Turkey, Turkmenistan, Azerbaijan – with close linguistic and cultural ties, which all use the name hindi. Luckily for Mr. Modi, only some 12% of the world’s populations use this potentially offensive name for our bird from the Americas.
That being said, there may be more here to potentially offend Mr. Modi, and we have the Dutch to thank for that. For reasons which I don’t understand at all, the Dutch called our bird from the Americas Kalkoense haan, or “chicken from Calcoen”, the then-used name for the Indian city of Calicut in the state of Kerala (which, in another example of India decolonizing its place names, is now called Kozhikodez). Calcoen-Calicut was a big trading partner in Europe’s first interactions with India, and in the early 1600s the Dutch entered into a treaty with the local ruler to boot out the Portuguese. But none of that explains – to me at least – why the Dutch seemed to think that this bird came from Calcoen. But they did.
The Dutch eventually shortened the name to kalkoen, and in closely related forms it spread far and wide. I suppose because the Dutch were very active traders in the Baltic Sea and took the bird with them on their trading ventures, almost all the countries along that sea’s shores have adopted the Dutch name in the form of kalkun or something similar. But the Dutch also took the bird with them on their colonizing ventures. Thus, Sri Lankan speakers of Sinhalese call the bird kaḷukumā (Sri Lanka was Dutch for a while, after they kicked out the Portuguese, before they were themselves kicked out by the British). For their part, the Indonesians appropriated the name from their former colonial masters and call the bird kalkun (I’ve commented on Indonesian’s cheerful appropriation of foreign words in an earlier post). As you would expect, the descendants of the Dutch settlers in South Africa, the Afrikaaners, call the bird kalkoen, and the name has percolated into at least one of the languages of southern Africa, northern Shona, as kalakune. Still, at the end of the day, only about 5% of the world’s population use this name for our bird from the Americas. On top of it, the connection to India is really not that obvious, so I think Mr. Modi can breathe easy – assuming he has spent any time at all thinking about this potential slight to Indian pride.
If Mr. Modi were ever to get exercised by the link between India and the supposedly stupid bird from the Americas, I really don’t think he could adopt the course taken by Mr. Erdoğan. I just can’t see what changes could be brought to his country’s name which would sufficiently distance it from the India-like names which have been given to our bird. It would be far better for Mr. Modi to initiate an international process (through the UN, perhaps) to change the bird’s name. And I have just the name to propose: huehxōlōtl! This is the Nahuatl name for our bird. It seems to me to fit beautifully with the general move to decolonize our languages. Each language could take this name and fit it into their way of speaking. The Spanish-speaking Latin Americans already did this a while back. Contrary to the Spaniards, who call our bird pavo, they call it guajolote, a hispanicized form of the original Nahuatl name. In English, it could be transliterated to “whexolot”. That’s a bit awkward, but knowing people’s tendency to shorten and simplify words, I’m guessing that over time this could become “whellot”. That rolls off my English tongue fairly easily: “500 grams of whellot, please. I’ll have it tonight with maize and potatoes”.