November 30, 2022

Words of the Month - Talking Turkey

         In this season of holiday feasts, it seems a good time to learn where some of our holiday feast words come from.  Study this well, and it will give you something to talk about should conversation flag over the festive table.

        turkey - The application of this word to the large North American fowl so often eaten at Thanksgiving and other holidays is a tale of linguistic, ornithological, and geographical confusion and misunderstanding.  It is indeed the same word as the country, and was first applied to the guinea fowl of West Africa, which came to Europe when North Africa was under Ottoman Turkish rule.  Thus, a bird from Turkey.  It wasn’t much later, 
however, that the word was applied to the American bird domesticated by the Aztecs and introduced to Europe by the Spanish.  As far as Europeans could tell, they seemed pretty similar and more-or-less interchangeable.  The Turkish speakers obviously knew the bird didn’t come from Turkey, but they, like the rest of the Old World, were pretty fuzzy on the distinction, if any, between America and Asia, so the Turkish word for turkey is hindi, meaning “Indian” (together with French, whose word for the bird also derives from “chicken from India”).  This is the same reason of course, that Native Americans got called Indians.  As a final note, the modern Spanish for turkey derives from the Latin for “peacock,” another superficially similar species that is just slightly more closely related to turkeys than guinea fowl.

        gravy - This word, too, involves an error that became the standard.  From Old French grave, it probably derives from Old(er) French grané, meaning “sauce or stew,” which in turn derives from Latin granum meaning “grain or seed,” a definition which included grains of salt or spices.  Gravy, therefore, was something properly seasoned.  How did it shift from grane to grave?  From the misreading of handwriting in medieval manuscripts.  To find out more, as well as other words that changed because of medieval handwriting, you can revisit the prior post “Words of the Month - Of Writing lllllllks.”

        pie - A word that I, for one, would not want to do without at the holidays, this too has an ornithological connection.  Dating back to Medieval Latin, the word meant “meat in pastry,” but in Medieval English, a pie had multiple ingredients inside the crust while a pastry had a single ingredient inside.  And that distinction may be because of a connection to the pie in magpie.  The bird was originally just called pie, from Latin pica.  (It was given its familiar name Mag(gie) before about 1600, in the same period when the 
redbreast was named Robin and the wren was commonly called Jenny wren.)  One of the magpie’s proverbial characteristics is the collection and hoarding of miscellaneous small objects - sort of like gathering various ingredients into a pastry crust.  It was also around 1600 that the pastry word pie shifted to include fruit fillings as well as meat.

        vegetable - This was an adjective first, meaning “living, growing, vigorous,” from the early 15th century, and it derives from Latin “vigorous, enlivened, sprightly.”  (So the 2oth century definition “a person who is mentally and physically incapacitated” is pretty much a complete reversal in meaning.)  By 1767 the English word included the specific meaning “a plant cultivated for food.”  I’ve looked at plenty of particular vegetable etymologies before, so you can learn about pumpkin here, and a variety of other vegetables here.

        You can also find more wood block prints of turkeys here.
        Do you celebrate with any unique and special elements in your holiday feasts?

P.S. All are invited to my final Holiday Sale of the year, the Celebrate Newton Local Holiday Market this Sunday at Newton South High School!

[Pictures: Behavior at the Table, wood block print from A Little Pretty Pocket-Book, 1787 (Image from Library of Congress);

Turkeys, three color woodblock prints by Walther Klemm, 1906, 1907, 1908 (Images from Museum of Fine Arts, Budapest);

The Magpie, wood block print from Illustrated Alphabet of Birds, 1851 (Image from University of Florida);

Magpie, color woodblock print by Allen William Seaby, 1900-1908 (Image from The British Museum).]

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