Appears in

Oxford Companion to Food

Oxford Companion to Food

By Alan Davidson

Published 2014

  • About

turkey with reference to birds, was originally a prefix to the terms cock, hen, and poult (a young bird), but now stands on its own and denotes the species Meleagris gallopavo. Native to N. America, these birds are now farmed and used for table poultry around the globe. A book by Schorger (1966) provides much historical information about the bird and its transformation into a global food item.

The nomenclature of turkeys in modern European languages and scientific Latin reflects confusion about the origin and nature of the birds on their arrival from the New World. They were confused in European minds with guinea-fowl, and probably peacocks too. Linnaeus used Meleagris, the Roman name for guinea-fowl, when naming the genus to which turkeys belong. Europeans called turkeys by names reflecting a supposed eastern origin, including coq d’Inde (cock of India), later corrupted to dinde or dindon in French. The English, who may have had their first birds through the agency of the Levant or Turkey merchants, settled on ‘turkey-cock’.