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shameless pleading

Job’s turkey, poor as

Daunting tasks “r” us.

Dear Word Detective: In reading The Poe Shadow, a historical novel concerning an investigation of the mysterious death of Edgar Poe, the author Matthew Pearl uses the expression “poor as Job’s turkey.” The setting of the novel is 1851 Baltimore. Is Pearl using an expression of the time? Although I’ve read some of the Bible, the Book of Job is overly long; therefore I have not read it. Can you date and explain the reference? — Clete Delvaux, De Pere, Wisconsin.

Good question. Incidentally, why is it that you never run into people with the same last names as truly famous writers? Have you ever met a Poe? A Thackeray? Even a Mailer or a Vidal? Anyone out there know a Tiffany Yeats, a Larry Keats or a Billy Bob Longfellow? Am I the only one who finds this odd?

Onward. In answer to your first question, yes, “poor as Job’s turkey” was indeed a common expression in the mid-19th century, indicating that Mr. Pearl took his research seriously, which is nice to see. There’s nothing worse than shelling out twenty-five dollars for a historical novel and being rewarded with Thomas Jefferson declaring, “As IF, dude.”

Summarizing the Book of Job in one paragraph is a daunting task, but here goes. A righteous and prosperous man, Job has his faith tested by Satan (with God’s permission) and endures all manner of torment, including the loss of his children, his livelihood and his physical health. But Job keeps the faith, and eventually his humility and perseverance in the face of terrible adversity is rewarded.

Whether past centuries were more intrinsically religious than modern times is debatable (somewhere else), but it is indisputable that in 19th century America the Bible played a much more central role in popular culture than it does today. Thus common figures of speech frequently referenced Biblical figures, as in “Adam’s ale” (water) and “Adam’s occupation” (gardening). Since the notable characteristics of the story of Job were his suffering, poverty and endurance, it was common to hear references to “the patience of Job” (“You would provoke the patience of Job,” 1749) or of someone being “poor as Job” (“He’s poor as Job, and not so patient,” 1822).

But human nature can’t resist the urge to embellish, and by the 19th century Americans (especially in the Midwest) were jocularly enhancing these sayings. If Job was poor, his cat (not mentioned in the Bible, of course) must have been even poorer (“I should rather be as poor as Job’s cat all the days of my life,” 1854), and that cat must have been rich as Croesus compared to Job’s poor turkey (“But laws! Don’t I remember when he was poorer nor Job’s turkey!”, 1871).

Job, of course, not only never owned a turkey, but would never have known they existed, since the bird we call a “turkey” is actually native to Mexico. But as a figure of speech that adds a smidgen of silliness to a venerable Bible reference, “poor as Job’s turkey” does the job.

10 comments to Job’s turkey, poor as

  • You might be interested in this online commentary “Putting God on Trial: The Biblical Book of Job” (http://www.bookofjob.org) as supplementary or background material for your study of the Book of Job. It is not a sin to question God, to demand answers from God. There is a time and a place for such things. It is written by a Canadian criminal defense lawyer, now a Crown prosecutor, and it explores the legal and moral dynamics of the Book of Job with particular emphasis on the distinction between causal responsibility and moral blameworthiness embedded in Job’s Oath of Innocence. It is highly praised by Job scholars (Clines, Janzen, Habel) and the Review of Biblical Literature, all of whose reviews are on the website. The author is an evangelical Christian, denominationally Anglican. He is also the Canadian Director for the Mortimer J. Adler Centre for the Study of the Great Ideas, a Chicago-based think tank.

  • Bill Brandon

    Some expressions are not as dead as one might think. “Poor as Job’s turkey” was a common phrase in my father’s family. They were mostly from Tennessee (one great-grandmother was from Missouri) and moved to Texas after the Civil War. I still use the phrase today, and perhaps my children and grandchildren will as well.

  • Rick Dostie

    The expression is not limited to the South. I’ve heard it for years here in Maine, and have often used it myself. I did wonder where it came from, and figured it did refer to the Book of Job, a part of the Bible which many people don’t know from Adam’s off ass.

  • j.r. fishburne

    my family used the expression in ocean springs, mississippi in the 1880s.

  • Bill White

    Interesting to learn this. The expression is used in Tennessee Williams’ play Cat On a Hot Tin Roof – set in Mississippi in the 1950′s. I’m in a production of it right now and we have been wondering about that expression.

    Incidentally, I did know someone named Poe. A friend’s maternal grandparents had that name – they were from Charlotte, NC.

  • @Rick Dostie same here, our family used it a lot here in Maine as well. I just used it at work today when a co-worker asked if I wanted to contribute to a pizza for lunch today, lol. I said, “I can’t today. I am poor as Job’s turkey until tomorrow.”

  • Tom Christopher

    My father, a Connecticut Yankee with a taste for colorful expressions, used to use that one too. I always wondered why a turkey? No turkeys in the ancient Middle East.

  • Sunday, February, 17, 2013. I first heard the expression: “We were as poor as Job’s turkey” from my cousin Eloise Anderson who is 96 years of age in 2013. Her family has been Baptist for many generations and they have had two ministers in the family, and the expression was widely used by them. They lived in Waterdown, Ontario; Emerson, Manitoba; and Woodstock, Ontario; they were mostly in farming. Isn’t the INTERNET wonderful?

  • Ken Hutchinson

    In the Midwest during and after the “great depression” of the 1930′s the expression was very frequently used. It gave us some comfort to know that there was somewhere a person even more poor and hungry than we were. And to think that his turkey must be the living end of such misery made us feel more secure by comparison.

  • Ben W Lesch

    School teacher here reading “Just Juice” by Newberry Winner Karen Hesse with my Third Graders. Page 10 the main character uses the phrase, “Poor as Job’s Turkey, that’s what the church ladies say we are.” It was written in 1998 and takes place somewhere in mining country, Appalachia, Tennessee, Kentucky, , a town called Redemption. Easy lesson to pull out phrases like this and see their origins… And so the expression lingers in modern children’s lit too.

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