From dancing to bowling, from negotiations to nerds, the bird is the word

By Jim Kempton

Wavelengths By Jim Kempton

Thanksgiving is America’s national stuffing day.

It is the one holiday each year when overeating is considered patriotic. It’s not just that we eat too much. We do that most days of the week. But on Thanksgiving, as Johnny Carson once said, we travel all across the country to be with people we only see once a year. And then discover once a year is way too often.

Turkey has become far more than a bird we eat at our annual feast day, when we take time to count our blessings. The word has inserted itself in a veritable slew of slang phrases referencing arcane activities of all sorts.

Why is kicking a habit called going cold turkey? (For years, I thought it meant using leftovers in a sandwich.) Who came up with the idea of talking turkey? When did people dance the Turkey Trot? Or hold a turkey shoot? Where does the name come from, anyway? What does the bird turkey have to do with the nation Turkey? (They are related.) And why do we call a failed movie or an inept, dislikeable person a turkey? Even more mysteriously, how the heck did bowling three strikes become known as a turkey?

Being an inveterate curiosity hound, I attempted to ascertain the back story to some of these weird and wonderful expressions related to the bird. Here is what my feeble research was able to discover.

Three strikes in a row: According to the National Bowling Association, in the late 1800s and early 1900s, bowling proprietors used to present live turkeys to bowlers who threw three consecutive strikes around Thanksgiving.

Cold turkey: This usage dates from the early part of the 20th century, as in this example from The Des Moines Daily News, in May 1914: “Plain speaking/getting down to business is called ‘talking cold turkey,’ which has been shortened in present day speech to just ‘talking turkey.’ ” 

“Talking cold turkey” meant no nonsense talking, and its partner expression “going cold turkey” meant no nonsense doing.

The Turkey Trot was a turn-of-the-20th century popular dance during the ragtime music era. When the Vatican denounced it as immoral and suggestive, conservative members of society felt the dance promoted decadence and tried to get it banned at public functions; which, of course, only increased its popularity.

What a turkey—meaning a failure, especially a failed theatrical production or movie—was common in 1927 theater slang, while the meaning “a person considered inept or undesirable,” was first regularly used in 1951. Both come from the idea of the turkey being a silly and stupid animal.

Turkey shoot became a synonym for an easy target during WWII, from soldiers holding marksmanship contests. Turkeys were tied behind a log with their heads showing as targets.

And why was this bird called a turkey? The University of Princeton website explains that the guinea hen, which looks very similar to our American fowl, was an Ottoman Empire import from Africa. It was dubbed the “turkey hen.” When colonists brought American birds back from the new world, the name turkey stuck for them as well.

In any case, they bring us great eating. Happy Thanksgiving.

Jim Kempton, an author and recent grandfather, has frequently overheard the word turkey in connection to his own name; he also sports a distinctive fleshy protuberance that hangs under his chin, simulating those of our beloved bird.

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