The Republic of Turkey isn’t exactly a breeding ground for the bird that we associate with Christmas. So, how did the land occupied by the Turks become associated with a North American bird?

The country

Turkey has been used to refer to “land occupied by the Turks” since the 1300s and was even used by Chaucer in The Book of the Duchess.

The word Turk is of unknown origin, but it’s used in such varying languages as Italian, Arabic, Persian, and many others to refer to people from this region. The land occupied by the Turks was known as the Ottoman Empire from the 1300s until 1922.

Following World War I and the fall of the Ottomans, the Republic of Turkey formed, taking on the name that had long referred to that region.

The bird

Turkeys are native to the Americas, but the Europeans first encountering them thought that they looked like a kind of guinea fowl, another large, ungainly, colourful-faced kind of bird.

The guinea fowl is actually native to eastern Africa and was imported to Europe through the Ottoman Empire. Europeans came to call the guinea fowl the turkey-cock or turkey-hen because the bird came from the Turks.

When settlers in the New World began to send similar-looking fowl back to Europe, they, out of familiarity, called them turkeys.

Turkey in Turkey

Turkey, for its part, does not use the term “turkey” at all. Instead, the birds are equally perplexingly known as “hindi.”

Turkey meets Christmas and Thanksgiving

By 1575, the English were enjoying the North American bird at Christmas dinner, and Shakespeare talked about it in Henry IV. Turkey with gravy became even more well known when Charles Dickens wrote about it in A Christmas Carol in 1843.

Once Lincoln declared Thanksgiving a national holiday in 1863, the turkey had become a staple of Christmas dinner and quickly became a Thanksgiving treat, as well.