Turkey, as the name of the country where Turkish people (i.e. Turks) live, was derived from "Turk" or "Tourk" in old turkish or Arabic or Persian; and from "Turcus" in medieval Latin for which the plural form was "Turci". [1] The word experienced various adaptations like "Tourkoi" in Byzantine-Greek or "T-u-kue" in Chinese. In Turkish, "Turk" means strength and therefore, "Turkey" means "The Strong (people)."[2]
As the name of a bird, the word "turkey" was used as early as the 16th century by the European people. The name was given to the Guinea Fowl (numida meleagris) which was imported from the African island of Madacascar through Turkey by means of traders who dealt with the Near East.
The traders were known as "turkey merchants" and hence, the bird that was sold by these merchants was known by the English in particular as a "turkey" or "turkey cock". [3,6]
The turkey which is the essential dish of the Thanksgiving Dinner in the American tradition is originally a North-American bird (meleagris gallopavo), although it has been domesticated in most parts of the world including Turkey. [4] Where as the Guinea fowl is a different bird than the North American turkey, they are related in that, both belong to the order of gallinaceous birds (birds which nest on the ground). [5]
As described above, before Columbus discovered America, the British people knew the the turkey as the bird imported by the turkey merchants.[6] When the first British colonists settled on the newly-discovered lands of the American continent and found around their fortresses, a native bird which bore a strong resemblance to the bird which they had known from their homeland, they called it "turkey". The early colonists carried great amounts of this North American bird back to England and introduced there as turkey.
The first appearance of the word "turkey" in English literature coincides with the time of this introduction, i.e. 1524. [7] Within about 50 years of its introduction to Europe, turkey became associated with the Christmas festivities (1575). [8]
Some sources indicate another path through which the turkey was introduced to Europe. Since prehistoric times the Aztec Indians had domesticated a gallinaceous bird. The Spanish invaders brought it to Spain and introduced it to the king in about 1519. [9] From Spain it spread all over Europe, reaching England in 1541. The bird which was brought to Europe by the Spanish was the occelated turkey (agriocharis occelata) found in Mexico, Guetemala and Brazil, and is very much like its North American sibling. [10]
In any case, the American bird, - either North or Central - was introduced to the European people who had known guinea fowl as "turkey", the name that was given on account of its import path by the turkey merchants. The introduction of the new bird, which was very similar to the guinea fowl, resulted in its designation as "turkey".
[1] Partridge, Eric "Origins. A Short Etymological Dictionary of the Modern English" 1963, p.743.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Klein Ernest "A Comprehensive Etymological Dictionary of the English Language" vol.2 p.1665.
[4] author's note : turkey is avery popular dish in Turkey at the New Year's Eve
[5] Webster's New Collegiate Dictionary.
[6] Barnhart R.K. ed. "The Barnhart Dictionary of Etymology" 1988, p.1176.
[7] Ibid.
[8] Ibid.
[9] Encyclopedia Brittanica 1989 ed. vol.22, p.398.
[10] Ibid. vol.27 p.274.
by Ugur Baysal

Note : This article was published in Worcester Polytechnic Institute Weekly Newspaper; Worcester Telegram Daily Newspaper; and Springfield Union News Daily Newspaper in November 1990.