Doing the best it can, folks.
Dear Word Detective: In my adolescent years in the 1960s, I had a good friend whose father was a poultry expert at Purdue University, and we sometimes stopped by where his father worked and saw flocks of domesticated turkeys. Unlike their wild brethren, these birds seemed to be a pretty stupid lot, and we began to call anyone we thought was a fool or who blindly followed rules a “turkey.” We used the word until it drove my parents to distraction, with phrases like “These turkeys don’t know what they are doing” and “What a turkey that guy is.” Later in my life my father said he thought that our use of “turkey” in this way had become widespread because of our persistent usage through our middle school and high school years. Any chance that we were the originators of this usage of the word? If not, I’d like to know who the turkey was who started it! — Andy Hughes.
So would the Turkey Anti-Defamation League, so I wouldn’t be so quick to claim credit. The good news is that they seem to have their hands full with all the other less-than-laudatory uses of “turkey” lurking out there in popular culture. As a matter of fact, pro-turkey press is so rare that I still remember the brilliant headline the Weekly World News splashed across its front page some years ago, just a few days before Thanksgiving: “Hero Turkey Saves Family of Five.” It was a joke, of course, but I’ll bet it made folks in supermarket checkout lines that week feel a bit guilty.
The story of the noble turkey, which Benjamin Franklin believed should be our national bird (“[T]he Turkey is in Comparison a much more respectable Bird [than the Bald Eagle], and withal a true original Native of America … He is besides, though a little vain & silly, a Bird of Courage….”), begins with a case of mistaken identity. The bird we know as a “turkey” does not come from Turkey (the country), but from Mexico. When Europeans encountered them in America, they mistook them for Guineafowl, which had been exported from West Africa to Europe through Turkey and known as Turkeyfowl.
For a bird that would assume a prominent place in the modern diet, the turkey has been the butt of a number of ungratefully derogatory terms and phrases. The turkey’s slow and ungainly flight made “turkey shoot” a metaphor for a very easily accomplished task or a very lopsided contest, “to walk turkey” in the 19th century meant to strut or swagger, and “gobbledygook,” meaning “pretentious nonsense,” is an imitation of a turkey’s “gobbling” call.
The use of the word “turkey” by itself in a derogatory sense seems to date to the US in the 1920s, when “turkey” first appeared as show business slang for a movie or stage production that flopped (“The boys at the studio have lined up another turkey for us…. I saw the present one the other day and didn’t care much for it,” Groucho Marx, 1939). The logic behind “turkey” in this sense is a bit mysterious, but it may have been a reference to the inept attempts at flight of a domesticated turkey.
However, it also may have come from the 19th century phrase “to talk turkey,” meaning “to speak directly and frankly,” as a producer might when announcing the closing of a show to the cast. “Talk turkey” is said to come from the punchline of an old joke in which a white man counts out the game from a hunt with his Indian companion and keeps all the turkeys for himself, the Indian getting only crows, whereupon the Indian complains that “You only talk crows to me, you never talk turkeys.” The use of “talk turkey” meaning “to face facts and speak the truth directly” is also probably the source of “cold turkey,” meaning to quit an addiction suddenly and completely.
From meaning “a theatrical flop,” turkey went on to a more general use meaning “anything useless or of low quality.” By the 1950s, “turkey” had come into slang usage with the meaning of “a slow, stupid, inept or otherwise useless person” (“So, if you got a collector [of internal revenue] through the civil service system who was a real turkey, you’d be stuck with that turkey practically until he died,” 1951).
Given the fact that “turkey” was widespread by the 1950s, you definitely didn’t coin the common slang term. But your youthful familiarity with turkeys could very well have prompted you to re-invent, on the spot, a slang term you had not yet heard. They are, after all, remarkably stupid birds.