Origins of “Talk Turkey” and “Quit Cold Turkey”

alex atkins bookshelf wordsAs Turkey Day approaches, curious minds ponder turkey related phrases, like “talking turkey” or “quitting cold turkey.” So why do we single out the poor turkey and imply that they are frigid? (Around this time of year we should pity them for the sacrifice they must make. No wonder those unfortunate beasts cower at the very mention of Thanksgiving Day. ) We don’t say, “I quit my Netflix binging cold monkey” or “I quit my addiction to Fortnite cold salamander.” Those statements sound so amazingly weird, don’t they?

Although they have different meanings, “talking turkey” means talking frankly and seriously while “quitting cold turkey” means quitting something suddenly and completely (typically used in context of a bad habit like smoking tobacco, drinking alcohol, or taking drugs), both phrases are closely related. Let’s step into the time machine and visit the early 19th century to learn how these phrases came about.

First, if you are American, you can take pride that both are true Americanisms (made in the USA!). The earliest recorded appearance of either phrase, according to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), is in the early 1800s. Specifically, “talking turkey” appears in 1824 referring to speaking affably or frankly: “So that, all things considered, I hope neither the Indian, whom the Yankey could not cheat in the division of their game (a turkey and a buzzard)… will accuse me of not talking turkey.” So how did turkeys getting linked with talking — especially since they gobble? Lexicographers surmise that when settlers and Native Americans went hunting for wild turkeys, at the end of the hunt, they had to divide the spoils. If one of the hunters said, “talk turkey for Indian,” that meant that the Native American received a turkey. (Certainly, the Native American did not want to hear the settler talking buzzard.) Another explanation for the phrase was that the settlers encountered Native Americans, they often asked about the supply of wild turkeys; that is to say, they came to “talk turkey.” Finally, turkeys, being social birds (running around in flocks), came to represent individuals engaged in conversation. Gobble! Gobble!

The use of “taking turkey” slowly changed in meaning from talking affably to talking plainly or directly. We see this use in Dialect Notes from 1903: “I’m going to talk turkey with him and see if I can’t get him to mend his ways.” Over a period of about two decades, a variant of “talking turkey” arose: “talking cold turkey.” To talk cold turkey meant getting straight to the point, without delay or mincing words. The Random House Dictionary of American Historical Slang cites this entry from 1920: “Now tell me on the square — can I get by with this for the wedding — don’t string me — tell me cold turkey.” And from a 1922 letter from American poet and journalist Carl Sandburg: “I’m going to talk cold turkey with booksellers about the hot gravy in the stories.” LOL — Sandburg talking turkey!

Shortly after, the meaning of cold turkey morphs into “stopping suddenly” and is applied to addictions. The OED cites an article in the Daily Colonist (Victoria, B.C., 1921) that states: “Perhaps the most pitiful figures who have appeared before Dr. Carleton Simon … are those who voluntarily surrender themselves. When they go before him, they [drug addicts] are given what is called the ‘cold turkey’ treatment.” Well, thank you very much for that etymological contribution Dr. Simon!

So now you can dazzle your guests by talking turkey at Thanksgiving dinner with this fascinating etymology of “talking turkey” and “cold turkey.” And can you please pass the gravy…

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