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Word of the day: kalkoen (turkey)

And…. did you have a merry Christmas time? Of course you did. And did you gobble your roast this year? Was it turkey?

Why is this popular bird called ‘turkey’ in English, KALKOEN in Dutch, ‘dinde’ in French, and ‘Pute’ or ‘Truthuhn’ in German?

Let’s start with the easiest answer. ‘Pute’ or ‘Truthuhn’. ‘Pute’ or ‘trut’ are German imitations of the sound that the ‘Meleagris gallopavo’ makes: ‘put, put, put’ or ‘trut trut trut’ (the ‘u’ should be pronounced /oo/ as in ‘wood’). According to the English a turkey says ‘gobble, gobble, gobble’. By the way, did you know that a turkey’s ‘put’ or ‘gobble’ is a cry for his harem and that it can be heard thousands of metres away?

So if the Germans chose the obvious name ‘Pute’ why isn’t the English name ‘gobble’? I guess because the English don’t find ‘gobble’ dignified. They may like to gobble its roasted meat down, but they gave it a name more worthy of the aristocratic looking bird. The name of a nation. But why Turkey?

When Christopher Columbus and his fellow travellers in 1492 first saw the majestic bird in the land that they mistook for India, they thought it was a guinea fowl (parelhoen). In those days of discovery Turkish traders were importing the smaller but exquisite and expensive guinea fowl from Madagascar via Turkey. That’s why the English called it turkey cock.

In the beginning of the sixteenth century the Spanish started importing its larger look-alike from the New Country. Both guinea fowl and Aztec fowl were thought to be of the same species and so it happened that the West-Indian bird was also called ‘turkey cock’. This big bird became popular very quickly. In Shakespeare’s time, the New World bird had already become the usual main course at an English Christmas.

The English name ‘turkey’ has obviously nothing to do with the country Turkey. But the English were not the only people who were geographically confused. The French named the bird after India, the supposed country of the bird’s origin. In the early sixteenth century the French still had no idea that a new large continent had been discovered. So they called the bird ‘chicken from India’: ‘poulet d’inde’. Modern French connoisseurs still call the bird ‘dindon’ or ‘dinde’.

The Dutch, too, presumed that the gallinaceous bird came from India. Like the English they also supposed that the turkey was a larger member of the same family as the guinea fowl. Instead of calling it a ‘Turkey Cock’, they called it ‘Calcoensche haan’ (Calicut cock) or ‘Calkoetsche hoen’ (Calicut fowl). Calicut, now its name is Kozhikode, is an important port and city in the southern Indian state of Kerala. In the sixteenth and seventeenth century the Dutch traded a lot in this port. Its nickname was the city of spices.

In time ‘Calcoensche haan’ became known as KALKOEN. The Dutch word was exported to Swedish, Danish and Russian. French ‘dinde’, Turkish ‘hindi’, Polish ‘indyk’, English ‘turkey’, Dutch KALKOEN are all wrong. The only name that comes close to its place of origin is ‘perú’, which is the Portuguese name for the big American bird. But even Peru is wide of the mark, because the bird was originally domesticated by the Aztecs in the region which is now called Mexico.

So, I suggest, that we rebaptize the big bird and give it an international name that reminds us of its origins. No more confusion. The Mexican Big Bird deserves recognition. We should honour the bird with a worthy name. Let’s listen to Benjamin Franklin who wrote to his daughter in 1784 that he preferred the turkey to the bald eagle as a symbol for the United States of America:

‘The Turkey is in Comparison a much more respectable Bird, and withal a true original Native of America… He is besides, though a little vain & silly, a Bird of Courage, and would not hesitate to attack a Grenadier of the British Guards who should presume to invade his Farm Yard with a red Coat on.’

Let’s call the ‘Meleagris gallopavo’ from now on ‘mexico’ in English, ‘exmexicain’ in French, ‘Trutmexikaner’ in German, and in Dutch ‘meksikoen’. In 2014, next Thanksgiving or at Christmas you’ll serve a delicious ‘roast mexico’ or, if you’re in the Netherlands, ‘gebraden MEKSIKOEN’.