Talking Turkey

In honour (note the "ou" spelling) of Canadian Thanksgiving, this week's video looks at the word and the history of "turkey":

As often happens, I really over-researched for this one, so I have lots of extra material which didn't make it into the video. Some of this I'll put into this blog, but I think I have enough left over to make another Thanksgiving-related video next year. You can check out all the sources I drew on in the show notes page, but in particular I'd like to call attention to Dan Jurafsky's excellent book The Language of Food: A Linguist Reads the Menu. A version of his chapter on the turkey can be found on his blog here.

Of course Thanksgiving is all about the harvest. The word harvest comes from the Proto-Indo-European root *kerp- which means "to gather or pluck", and the Latin form of this word, carpere, also eventually gives us the word ‘scarce’ which develops from the sense of being "plucked out" and therefore "rare", which reminds us of the scarcity of food in all of these settlements. That Latin word is perhaps most famous from the phrase carpe diem, usually translated as "seize the day", but the metaphor at work there is really a harvesting metaphor, like "harvest your crops when they're ripe before they go bad!" And this PIE root *kerp- goes even further back to the form *(s)ker- which means "to cut or shear", eventually giving us many English words, including "to share" from the idea of a division or portion — so sharing gets around scarcity, another important reminder of those early European settlements and the help they received from Native Americans. This root also leads to the Latin word caro/carnis "flesh or meat", as in the English word carnivore, which might again remind you of your Thanksgiving turkey.

On the subject of the harvest and agriculture, there is the story in Greek myth of Persephone and Demeter, which I discussed in my video "The Story of Narrative". And of course there are many harvest festivals in many different cultures around the world. One worthy of note here, I suppose, is Lammas, the first harvest festival of the agricultural year in England, held August 1st when the wheat crop comes in, and involving bread specially made from that "first fruit" of the harvest. This harvest festival goes back to the Anglo-Saxon period, and the word Lammas comes from loaf-mass--remember the bread made from the wheat harvest--so this connects us with my video on the word "Loaf".

Another interesting English harvest festival is St. Martin’s Day or Martinmas, which falls on Nov. 11, and which picked up its elements of feasting and harvest celebration in addition to its religious elements after the fact, because of its timing. It’s connected with eating goose, though, not turkey, because of a story about its eponymous saint, Martin of Tours, who upon hearing that he was to be made a bishop and not wanting the job, tried to hide in a goose pen until the cackling of the geese gave him away. Geese are known as good alarm animals, as in the famous story of the geese in the Temple of Juno in Rome who awoke the sleeping Romans, warning them of a nighttime attack by the Gauls, according to the Roman historian Livy. And strangely enough guineafowl (yes them again) have a similar reputation, and even today are often kept with other barnyard poultry to warn of and even scare off birds of prey. But as for the roast goose, it also used to be the main Christmas fowl of choice in England, until it was replaced by the turkey.

Getting back to Thanksgiving itself, during the American Civil War, Abraham Lincoln was the first president to make Thanksgiving an annual national holiday (in 1863), basing it off the New England traditional harvest thanksgiving festival and fixing it on the last Thursday in November — with the express goal of fostering national unity. The driving force behind Lincoln’s decision was the author Sarah Josepha Hale, the editor of Godey’s Lady’s Book, the most influential women’s magazine in the US—the Martha Stewart of her time, who was also trying very hard to create national unity. For instance, in her fiction she often wrote stories of romances between northerners and southerners, with nice happy endings. She is also notable for having written the famous children’s poem "Mary Had a Little Lamb", which has the distinction of being the first recording made by Thomas Edison on his new invention, the phonograph (an invention I previously covered in my video "Bug"). Hale may also be responsible for introducing several important Christmas traditions into America, when she reprinted a picture of Queen Victoria, whom she admired as the ideal role model for women, celebrating Christmas with her family around the Christmas tree, a custom that Victoria's husband Prince Albert had imported into England from his native Germany (a fact previously mentioned in my video "Yule"). And Hale’s idealized and romanticized literary portrayals of Thanksgiving feasts did much to catch the popular imagination. She was, after all, one of the biggest trend-setters of her day. So we have Hale to thank for the whole "holiday season", I suppose.

Because of Thanksgiving’s New England roots, and Lincoln’s Unionist intentions, it's not surprising that the holiday was not initially popular in the Southern states; they took a long time to embrace its celebration. There’s therefore no small irony in the fact that the debate about the ‘First Thanksgiving’ comes down mainly to a rivalry between Plymouth in the North and Jamestown in the South. Nonetheless, since Thanksgiving was only the second national holiday (after Independence Day) to be established, it has since gained strong patriotic significance.

When Hale cooked up the idea of the Thanksgiving holiday, she didn’t initially invoke that feast at the Plymouth colony. The story itself had been entirely forgotten, in fact, until 1841, and the discovery of a letter by Edward Winslow, one of the Plymouth leaders, written to attract more colonists, and  mentioning a feast involving some of the native population. On this evidence Alexander Young, who first published the letter, described the feast explicitly as “the first thanksgiving”, and the story eventually became attached to Hale’s efforts to promote the holiday. And the fact that the New Englanders had tended to serve turkey at their own harvest celebrations focussed attention on the mention of wild turkeys in the account from 1621 in the journal of William Bradford, another Plymouth leader, though he makes no specific mention of a feast.

But getting back to the turkey itself, in Turkish, the word for turkey is "hindi", or in other words a reference to India, and in a number of languages, such as Hindi and Portuguese, the word for turkey is essentially "Peruvian". Not that the turkey comes from Peru, but at least it's a closer guess than Turkey or India. I guess that the Portuguese, who are so implicated in this story, at least knew they weren't from Turkey. I suppose "Peruvian" would have been a better name for the guinea pig, though! In any case, there's a Wikipedia page with various words for turkey in different languages, if you want to look further -- the Japanese "seven-faced bird" is particularly evocative, and my friend Moti at The Ling Space mentioned in a comment on the video that it's because of its colourful face and feathers, since 7 is often the number used to denote 'numerous' in Japanese -- though why Tamil has "sky chicken" is beyond me. Also have a look at this fun article by Gretchen McCulloch for more discussion of the topic.

Of course the word turkey has gained a number of slang senses in modern English, such as a stupid person or an unsuccessful film, both due no doubt to the reputation of the turkey as a particularly stupid bird. Cold turkey, as in to quit cold turkey, probably develops from the idea of the turkey being served without preparation. And "to talk turkey" supposedly comes from a "humorous" story of a swindling colonial and native American dividing up the spoils of their hunting together, with the colonial "talking the turkey" for himself, and leaving the less desirable animals to his companion. Whether true or not, this story does I suppose reflect something of the nature of the relationship between the American colonists and the indigenous population.

And this finally brings us to the real implication of this whole story, and the modern globalized world we live in. Names referring to Turkey or India or Guinea and so forth were so cavalierly assigned to all these new commodities being shipped into Europe because no one really knew where they came from and because one exotic locale was as good as another. But have things really changed that much? Do you know where your food really comes from? If you're lucky, your supermarket might tell you the source of the fruits and vegetables. Prepackaged and processed foods might tell you where they were assembled, but not the source of each ingredient. And of course many of the foods we eat are now produced half a world away from their original source, as was the turkey almost immediately after the Spanish found it, since it was selectively bred into something new in Europe after being imported from Mesoamerica. And the initial impetus for all of this was the desire for foods and other commodities that weren't available locally, like those spices from India, and we're still obsessed with having year-round access to foods we couldn't have if it weren't for these trade networks (see the 100-mile diet movement for a counter to this). The 15th and 16th century Age of European Exploration kicked off a global food system that we still live with today, and for the most part, most of us don't really stop to think about any of this. So if you're sitting down to a Thanksgiving dinner, have a look at the foods and drinks in front of you and ask yourself if you know not only where they were produced, but where they came from originally. The names might give you a clue, but as with the turkey it might not be that direct a trail.

Gimlet: A boring tool but not a boring Story

This week we re-open the Endless Knot cocktail bar with the origin of the cocktail Gimlet:

If you haven't seem my previous cocktail videos, by the way, have a look at the cocktail playlist which starts off with the etymology of the word "cocktail" itself. Actually, as far as cocktails go, this one's a twofer, with the classic Gin & Tonic thrown in as well, and even a threefer if you include the Grog. If you want to hear a fuller account of the etymology of the word Grog, have a listen to this episode of the podcast Lexicon Valley, in which the excellent Ben Zimmer explains.

I should also point out, by the way, that though the word gimlet, referring to the small drill, comes into English at least as far back as the 15th century, and the figurative gimlet-eyed goes back to 18th century, the OED doesn't have a citation for the gimlet as a drink any earlier than 1928, though perhaps some clever person will manage to backdate that at some point. References to mixtures of gin, lime, and sugar do seem to date back to the 19th century, so even without the name the drink seems to be at least that old. In any case, the most likely etymology of the drink name, I suspect, is the figurative sense of a penetrating drink. Sorry, Dr. Gimlette.

One interesting side detail is the pronunciation of the word quinine. My first instinct was to pronounce it as if to rhyme with "tin" and "mine" (in IPA /ˈkwɪn aɪn/), but I talked myself out of that pronunciation as just mixing up the British and American pronunciations and settled on the British. But after watching a video of quinine fluorescing under UV light that contained a similar uncertainty about the pronunciation, I started to think that my first instinct might represent a particularly Canadian pronunciation. So I polled people I knew on Twitter and Facebook, and here's the result:

Admittedly I don't have a lot of data to go on here, so I'd love to hear from anyone else as to how they pronounce the word, but it does seem clear that the British and American pronunciations are quite consistent (and different from each other), but the Canadian pronunciation is evenly distributed. The American outliers, by the way, are ex-pats living in Europe and Australia, so there may be some influence there. So what do you think?

The botanical name cinchona, by the way, though superficially sounding a bit similar, is not related to quinine and its Quechua root kina, but was instead assigned to the species by Carl Linnaeus, who kind of got the form of the word wrong, in honour of the Spanish Countess of Chinchon who was cured by the bark in 1638 while in Peru in the role of vice-queen, and later brought it back to Spain, after which it became known throughout Europe. This slightly garbled form of the name has nevertheless stuck.

Of course one of the main themes I was trying to draw out here was imperialism and capitalism, with the rise and influence of the East India Companies, in particular with the ongoing rivalry between the British (EIC) and the Dutch (Vereenigde Oostindische Compagnie or VOC). I cheated slightly, in that the word gimlet comes into English from Dutch through Anglo-Normal French, but the number of English borrowings from Dutch later on is significant and historically interesting. The -et on the end of the word is a diminutive suffix in French, so the diminutive form of the word in Dutch would be wimmelkijn. That Dutch suffix comes into English as -kin, as in the word napkin. The point of all this is that though these early commercial efforts led to important innovations like cures for scurvy and malaria (as well as less important innovations like cocktails), they also had the potential for great harm due to European attitudes to colonialism, and at their worst led to devastating atrocities. Our modern world might not be what it is today without this history, but it came with quite a price. For more background on the East India Companies and the rise of the corporation, have a look at this recent article on the British EIC or this Crash Course video on the VOC:

For those tracking previously mentioned links, this time we have the British East India Company, William of Orange, and the Gin Craze, previously mentioned in my first cocktail video. And polymath Erasmus Darwin got a look in in my Coach video. One additional set of links I didn't use in the video has to do with an early advertisement for Rose's Lime Cordial drawn by illustrator Edward Linley Sambourne -- I was unfortunately not able to find an image of this ad online but if you know of one please point it out to me. Sambourne was most famous for being one of the main illustrators for Punch magazine (previously mentioned in "A Detective Story" here) in which he drew a caricature of the first war correspondent William Howard Russell (also previously mentioned in "A Detective Story" here). Sambourne also drew a very famous caricature of Cecil Rhodes, after whom is named Rhodesia and the Rhodes Scholarship which he founded. The deeply racist Rhodes was big into colonialism and was a founder of the massively monopolistic and exploitative De Beers diamond mining company, another fine example of the combination of capitalism and colonialism gone horribly wrong. Sambourne's illustration of him has become iconic of 19th century colonialism.

In the final part of the video, I bring the story of European imperialism around to American imperialism with the story of Smedley Darlington Butler (whom I first heard of, I think, in the excellent Hardcore History podcast). Of course Butler's nickname of Old Gimlet Eye is useful in demonstrating the figurative use of the word gimlet which may also lie behind the name of the cocktail, and makes a nice coincidental parallel with the British naval admiral Old Grogram who invented grog. By the way grog is an example of an eponym, a word which is derived from the name of a person, in this case Old Grogram, and if you believe the Dr. Thomas D. Gimlette etymology for the drink name, that would make it also an eponym. (I discussed the similar concept of the toponym, a word that comes from a place name, in a previous blog post on for the video "Coach".) But Butler's story is also useful in demonstrating the dangers of corporate interests driving colonialist policies in ways not that far removed from the excesses of the British and Dutch East India companies of earlier times. So I'll leave you with Butler's own words, first in an excerpt from an article he wrote in the magazine Common Sense, and then in a video clip of his Business Plot accusation:

I spent 33 years and four months in active military service and during that period I spent most of my time as a high class muscle man for Big Business, for Wall Street and the bankers. In short, I was a racketeer, a gangster for capitalism. I helped make Mexico and especially Tampico safe for American oil interests in 1914. I helped make Haiti and Cuba a decent place for the National City Bank boys to collect revenues in. I helped in the raping of half a dozen Central American republics for the benefit of Wall Street. I helped purify Nicaragua for the International Banking House of Brown Brothers in 1902–1912. I brought light to the Dominican Republic for the American sugar interests in 1916. I helped make Honduras right for the American fruit companies in 1903. In China in 1927 I helped see to it that Standard Oil went on its way unmolested. Looking back on it, I might have given Al Capone a few hints. The best he could do was to operate his racket in three districts. I operated on three continents.