turkey

Fast Mash

  • Turkey first appears as turkey-cock and turkey-hen in 1541, originally referring to the sub-Saharan guinea fowl and later confused with the North American bird
  • Both the guinea fowl and turkey made it to English-speaking peoples by way of Turkish traders, called “turkey merchants,” who controlled much of the Mediterranean in the Middle Ages during the Ottoman empire
  • 16th-century Spanish conquistadors brought the turkey from North America (where the Aztecs had long before domesticated the bird in Mexico) to these Turkish hands

Last week, I looked into the etymology of burger for another guest post for LexicolatryTwo all-beef patties of American contradiction, the origin of burger is messy–just like a good burger should be.

But it’s probably not burgers on the minds or in the stomachs of many of my American readers as the Thanksgiving holiday approaches. Not turkey burgers, not Thanksgiving burgers–the bird’s the word.

And words, like food, are a tasty way to slice history.

Turkey

It turns out the bird and the country don’t just make for junior high geography jokes or World War I mnemonics. They’re actually connected–dare I say–at the thigh.

Well, sort of.

Originally, turkey–or turkey-cock (attested in 1541) and turkey-hen, back when our intimacy with where our food comes from necessitated such distinctions–referred to the guinea fowl, a bird native to sub-Saharan Africa.

The guinea fowl (or guineafowl), courtesy of Encyclopedia Britannica Online and Index Open.

According to some historians, these African guinea fowl made their way into Europe during the Middle Ages through the Turkish Ottoman Empire, which controlled much of North Africa, southern Europe, and the Middle East. So-called “turkey merchants” traded the birds and other goods and wares.

In the early 16th-century, Spanish conquistadors imported into Europe what we now think of as the turkey, domesticated by the Aztecs in Mexico as early as 800 BC, through the Turkish-dominated Mediterranean, whereupon English-speaking peoples misidentified this bird with the African guinea fowl. (Apparently, corn was also known as turkey corn or turkey wheat due to the same Turkey-by-way-of-Spain-by-way-of-the-New-World channel.) The English name for the American bird stuck, even after the Portuguese brought back–and correctly distinguished from its distant American cousin–guinea fowl from West Africa. Cookbooks from the late 1500s and early 1600s provide evidence that the turkey was already a centerpiece at English feasts, including Christmas.  As for why we came to eat turkey for Christmas and Thanksgiving, Slate offers a digestible bit of food anthropology here.

The Ancient Greeks called the guinea fowl μελεαγρίς, apparently a reference to the Meliagrides, sisters of the Argonaut Meleager, leader of the famed Calydonian boar hunt. Upon Meleager’s tragic death, his sisters were changed into guinea hens. Father of modern taxonomy Carl Linnaeus used the name to classify the genus of the North American bird (Meleagris gallopavo), while the name also identifies a common species of the African guinea fowl (Numida meleagris).

Talking Turkey

As for the Turkish? They call the bird hindi. It means “Indian,” and is probably from the French poulet d’inde, or “chicken from India.” Lest we forget, those European explorers–um, conquerors and colonists–did think the New World was Asia. Hence, the West Indies. Hindi and Indian? Yes, they are related. 

And as for Turkey? Turkey is named for the Turks. Romans in the Middle Ages called it Turcus and the Greeks, Tourkos. These come from the Persian national name turk, which folklore glosses as “strength,” but can mean “beautiful youth,” “barbarian,” or “robber.” There is an early Chinese word, tu-kin, referring to a people in the mountains of east-central Asia, who may be connected to ancient ancestors of the Turks.

None of this may be turkey shoot, except for cold turkeyCold turkey–suddenly and completely withdrawing from drugs, originally heroin (and later chocolate), including the intense symptoms therein–is attested in 1910, 1921, or 1936, depending on your source. Thanksgiving leftovers testify that cold turkey requires very little work, thus the original sense of “without preparation.” A cold shoulder (of mutton) is related, “considered a poor man’s dish and thus, perhaps, something one would set out for an unwanted guest with deliberate intention to convey displeasure,” the Online Etymology Dictionary delightfully observes. But let’s not leave our Canadian friends out, where Parson notes cold turkey refers to door-to-door selling or salesmen, perhaps for the same low-prep reasons. 

As for “talking turkey,” Parson defines it as talking “business” or “sense,” with turkey standing for “the substantial and succulent part of a (Christmas) dinner.”

Oh, and that thing dangling from the turkey’s neck? That’s called a wattle. It’s a fleshy caruncle. Birds (and other animals) also have dewlaps and snoods. Apparently, when we named the anatomy of birds, Linnaeus left the room and Dr. Suess took his place. Folds of skin: bon appetit, right?

Whatever’s on your table and whatever you are celebrating this week, enjoy your holiday, give thanks, be safe, and, by all means, avoid fleshy caruncles.

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typhoon

Fast Mash

  • Typhoon reaches English–translated from the Italian, itself from the Portuguese tufão–in the late 1580s, and its various spellings point to various possible sources 
  • Typhoon may be from the Arabic tufan (“violent storm of wind and rain”), related to tafa (“to turn around”)
  • It may also be from the Greek typhon (“whirlwind” and name of a monstrous, giant god), related to typhein (“smoke,” as in vapor)
  • Chinese might have influence, too, with ta feng (Mandarin dàfēng or 大風), meaning “big wind”

It’s hard to comprehend the devastation that Typhoon Haiyan has visited upon the Philippines this November. But for far too many, there is no comprehension. There’s only experience–brutal experience.

At the Mashed Radish, I use etymology as a lens through which to view human experience, or at least the ways words might structure that experience. This effort seems so small when it comes to the more extreme experiences that test–nay, defy– comprehension. My musings offer utterly no material aid, and I’m not going to pretend the little insights I kick up do much for solidarity.

But perhaps there is some tiny truth in the origin of typhoon that can help us better attend to Haiyan’s aftermath.

Typhoon

Of all the words I have traced so far, I don’t think any has shown as diverse a possible lineage as typhoon. Meteorologically, typhoons, hurricanes, and cyclones are all strong tropical cyclones, but they occur in different geographic regions. A typhoon strikes the northwest Pacific ocean west of the dateline. And it has carried this distinction–well, its distinction as a violent, massive storm in the East, especially in India or in the  China Sea–for some time in the English language.

Since 1588, to be precise, when a Thomas Hickock, an English merchant traveling the Mediterranean Sea, translated the Viaggio (shortened title), written in 1587 by the Venetian merchant Cesare de Fedrici after 18 years of travel in the East. As the OED cites Hickcock:

I went a boord of the Shippe of Bengala, at which time it was the yeere of Touffon…This Touffon or cruell storme endured three dayes and three nightes.

Likely by way of the Portuguese tufão, this touffon may derive from tufan, which in Urdu (and Arabic, Persian, and Hindi), refers to a “violent storm of wind and rain,” as the OED defines it. The Online Etymology Dictionary adds that al-tufan “occurs several times in the Koran for a ‘flood or a storm’ and also for Noah’s flood.” At root may be the Arabic tafa, meaning “to turn around.”

However, some have traced tufan back to the Greek typhon, meaning “whirlwind” and personified as a god of the same name. Weekely describes Typhon as a “giant, father of the winds, buried under Mount Etna.” Apparently, this winged, coiling Typhon also had a hundred heads (sometimes depicted as bull, lion, leopard, or snake heads), had two vipers for legs, had fifty serpent heads for each hand, and breathed fire–not to mention the fact that he fathered Cerberus, Sphinx, Hydra, and Chimera, among other monsters. The OED also notes that this name is shared by an ancient, evil Egyptian deity. 

Typhon battling Zeus on a Greek postage stage. Image courtesy of hellenicaworld.com.

Typhon likely comes from the Greek verb typhein, or “smoke.” Typhus and typhoid are indeed related: Greek has typhos (blind, stupor caused by fever).  As might be related the two cognates thyme and fume, some have suggested. 

The English language presents other forms of the word–tuffoon and tay-fun, among other spellings–that point to a Chinese influence. Chinese has ta feng, with ta meaning “big” and feng “wind.” In today’s traditional Mandarin, we would see dàfēng, or 大風.  This is the same feng in “feng shui.” But there is little harmony in this feng.

As I recall from my too brief studies of basic Chinese in college, the character pictographically resembles a man with outstretched arms. A fathom, if you will. But within the character for “wind,” it turns out, is the character for “insect.” Scholars posit some explanations for this: a likeness between the wind and bugs, sharing speed and changing directionality; or an ancient belief that the wind carries illness, either because it carries bugs or inflicts illness like bugs can.

Judge not this ancient etiology. We call germs bugs.” We refer to getting sick as “catching a bug.” And what about the cold–rooted in the belief that being exposed to the cold (and all its chilly winds) can cause sickness? Oh, and there’s that whole matter of airborne communicability, you know, like tuberculosis.

Who has the final word: Arabic, Greek, Chinese? While the Greek has no apparent connection to the Chinese, it seems typhon has influenced the spelling of English typhoon. There could be a case for the Chinese making its way west. And it seems reasonable to consider an interaction between the Greek and the Arabic. But, ultimately, we aren’t certain.  

Big Wind

Our words so often fall short. We grope for ways to express–to give name to–the most extreme of our experiences. But within our words are stories of our attempts to explain these experiences. The Greek giant Typhon–making sense of natural calamities, of why bad things happen and why the world is as it is, in terms of mythic dramas involving divine actors. Or infectious Chinese winds–folklore of evil sprits yet closer to our modern scientific understanding than we ever imagined. 

And yet at the same time events such as Typhoon Haiyan speak for themselves. Perhaps as typhoon spoke for itself as it travelled from Urdu and Hindi and Arabic and Greek to the Portuguese and the English. Or in Chinese, where its story is as direct as it can get: “big wind.”

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aloha

The Mashed Radish will be off the next week or so. I’m happy to be celebrating a family wedding on the island of Maui in Hawaii. Technically, that’s in Maui County, which seems like such an incongruous thing to say. One just does not associates islands with counties.

Aloha–which, in English, has come to be used as a greeting and a valediction–is Hawaiian for “love,” “compassion,” “affection,” “peace,” or “mercy.” It is cognate to the Maori aroha, and linguists have posited the Proto-Polynesian *qarofa as its yet older ancestor.  Proto-Polynesian: I don’t get to type that every day.

As far as I can tell, only Hawaii has an official state language other than English–Hawaiian, of course, which impresses me with its economical eight consonantal phonemes. But that’s sounds a bit patronizing, don’t you think? A language does what it needs to do. As W.P. Marshall wrote in Afloat on the Pacific in 1876:

Every one replied to my salutation of ‘aloha oe’ with a pleasant smile;…those two words were about all the Hawaiian I knew.

Here’s to less Proto-Indo-European and more Proto-Polynesian.

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