Fowl Talk for the Holidays

If Franklin had had his way about our national bird, would our main course at Thanksgiving be Bald Eagle? That's a thought to chew on.
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Birds rank high in the lexicon of insult. For example, and this is just for openers, you can be dumb as a dodo, crazy as a coot, silly as a goose, a sitting duck, or simply a dupe (from de huppe, the hoopoe, an Old World bird, said to be more stupid than most). One would have thought that the turkey might have escaped this. Virtually our national dish, it has graced dinner tables in the English-speaking world since the sixteenth century. Thus, from 1573: "Christmas husbandrie fare . . . shred pies of the best . . . and turkey well drest" (Thomas Tusser, Five Hundred Pointes of Good Husbandrie).

Away from the table, however, the turkey has come to symbolize failure, stupidity, incompetence, and worthlessness. On stage and screen, a turkey is a flop, a play or film that is panned by critics and shunned by audiences. As noted in Vanity Fair in 1927, "'A turkey' is a third rate production." More generally, a turkey is any unsuitable or worthless thing. Referring to a nuclear power plant in East Shoreham, N.Y., a 1984 New York Times editorial called it "a $4 billion turkey." (The plant was closed five years later without ever having generated any electricity for commercial use; by then, the turkey's price tag was around $6 billion.) A turkey may also be an inept person. During Jimmy Carter's presidency (1977-1981), Republican wits regaled themselves by asking "Why does the president's staff always carry a frozen turkey aboard Air Force One?" To which the politically correct answer was "Spare parts."

This hardly exhausts turkey's pejorative meanings. To have a turkey on one's back is to be drunk; to go cold turkey is to begin something without preparation, especially to withdraw suddenly from drugs; a victim of a mugging, or someone who is easy to take advantage of, is a turkey, and a turkey shoot is something easily accomplished (from the nineteenth-century custom of shooting matches with turkeys, or turkeys' heads, as targets). To walk turkey is to strut like one and to say or talk turkey is either, depending on context, to use pretentious language (gobbling, in effect), to talk pleasantly, or to speak very frankly. The last appears to stem from a joke that was making the rounds in the 1820s: Two hunters, a Yankee and an Indian, or Native American as we now say, met to divide the day's catch, consisting of turkey and buzzards (or crows in some versions). The shrewd Yankee allotted the birds, saying "I will take the turkey and you may take the buzzard," then "You may take the buzzard and I will take the turkey." And so on, until all the birds were accounted for, leading the Indian to complain, "You never once said turkey to me."

Even the bird's name is a misnomer. Turkeys do not come from Turkey; they are original Americans. The name initially was applied to the African guinea fowl, imported into England in the sixteenth century from Turkey and mistakenly assumed by the English to be native to that country. This error then was compounded by confusion of the African bird (known variously, depending on sex, as the turkey-cock or turkey-hen) with the New World turkey, which was domesticated in Mexico prior to the Spanish invasion in 1518, and which is ancestral to the one we eat.

As an original American, the turkey would have made an appropriate national symbol. At least, Benjamin Franklin thought so. Writing to his daughter, Sarah Bache in 1784, he said, "I wish the bald eagle had not been chosen as the representative of our county. . . . The turkey . . . is a much more respectable bird."

But if Franklin had had his way, would our main course at Thanksgiving be Bald Eagle? That's a thought to chew on. And a tough drumstick, too . . . where drumstick is of special interest for being an old euphemism for leg, a topic that is meaty enough to warrant a separate discussion in my next post.

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