The Origins of the Name “Turkey” or What Came First, Turkey or a Turkey?
Updated: Jun 24
Official Name Change of Turkey (the Country)
In December 2021, a communiqué issued by the Turkish President’s Office instructed the public to refer to the country as Türkiye instead of Turkey in all their international communications. The communiqué also called for Turkish exporters to label their merchandise as Made in Türkiye instead of Made in Turkey as an official follow-up to the announcement made by the Turkish professional association of exporters a year earlier.
In the communiqué, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan urged the public to show the “necessary sensitivity” by not using the English Turkey or the Italian Türkei, or the French Turquie, for that matter, when referring to the country. The explanation provided in the communique is that the name Türkiye “is the best representation and expression of the culture, civilization, and values of the Turkish nation.”
According to Turkish media, however, the real reason was the touchiness of the current government on account of sharing its name, albeit only in English, with a delicious yet extraordinarily ugly bird. Such association must run contrary to the Turkish government’s well-documented nationalistic aspirations. As the public TRT channel explained in one of its online articles, the definition given by the Cambridge Dictionary for the word turkey is that of “a stupid or silly person” or someone who “fails badly.”
After receiving the official request from the Turkish government, the UN reportedly acknowledged the receipt and promised to comply with the request. Whether the UN actually can, or should, make other countries change the way they address Turkey is another matter. For the Turkish government’s request is hardly an ordinary one.
Sure, other countries have occasionally rebranded themselves by changing their official names. The Turkish government is asking for something else, though—namely, that other countries change the official name they normally use for Turkey. What the Turkish government seems to expect from other governments to do is nothing short of having to ignore their histories and linguistic fundamentals.
Endonyms and Exonyms: What We Call Ourselves and What Others Call Us
Is the Turkish government correct to be so sensitive about the seemingly unflattering association with a large North American bird grown for food, or the flesh?
What would help in understanding this predicament is the underlying distinction between endonyms (or autonyms) and exonyms, or what Paul Woodman called the “great toponymic divide.” To clarify, all toponyms (placenames) have at least two names: a common, native placename chosen by people living in that place (endonym) and an established, non-native name given and used only by people living outside of that place (exonym).
The inevitable difference between the names often mirrors the quintessential conflict underlying the human condition: our need to divide the world into “ours” and “theirs” by naming differently and our desire to own and unite through renaming. In this, as Paul Woodman aptly pointed out, lies the great divide and a reason for frequent historical disputes and conflicts.
Another linguist, James Matisoff, who introduced the term autonym (endonym), clarified the nature of such conflicts: “Human nature being what it is, exonyms are liable to be pejorative rather than complimentary, especially where there is a real or fancied difference in cultural level between the ingroup and the outgroup.” What’s more, as Matisoff further writes, “A group’s autonym is often egocentric, equating the name of the people with ‘mankind in general’, or the name of the language with ‘human speech’.”
The Origins of the Name “Turkey”
As it happens, before modern nation-states or even the earlier feudal state-cities came about, travellers (or raiders), when encountering (or pillaging) an unknown tribe or village, often associated that tribe's name with anyone from that area. That name would eventually become the exonym used for the whole region and the people(s) within it.
The Crusades produced a number of such exonyms, including the Medieval Latin Turchia or Turquia, which translates as the “land of the Turks.” The exonym itself was based on the self-designated name Türk or Türük (of unknown origins) of the Turkic ancestral tribes, attested to reference to the Göktürks (Celestial Turks) of Central Asia in the 6th century AD. The first known usage of the Middle English variant, Turkye, is attributed to Chaucer's The Book of the Duchess, circa 1369.
Regardless of the ancestral self-designation, by the 14th century, the military-administrative elite of the Ottoman Empire preferred to call themselves Ottomans (Osmanlılar), and not as Turks, after the tribal followers of Osman I, the founder of the Ottoman dynasty. In contrast, the autonym Turk was only used to refer to the lower classes and peasants in the Empire.
Despite the Ottoman preferences, the originally Turkic name (Turk) became increasingly popular among Westerners. In England, for instance, the Ottoman sultan was called Grand Turk, and, throughout Europe, the name Turks was frequently used to collectively refer to those associated with the Ottoman Empire, whether they were aristocrats or peasants.
During the 19th century, the word “Türk” was a derogatory term used in the Ottoman Empire to mainly refer to Anatolian villagers.
As the Ottoman Empire continued expanding its influence and trade relations across Europe, so did its name as used by outsiders and translated from the Medieval Latin into many languages—as Turchia into the Italian, Turquie into the French, Turkey into the English, Turquía into the Spanish, Türkei into the German, and so on.
In the 19th century, the nationalist sentiment spread across Europe, toppling old notions of collective belonging while crystallizing new national identities. By the late 19th century, the European ideas of nation-building found growing sympathy among the Ottoman elites and the loyal support among the Turkish-speakers of Anatolia.
Initially referred to as “Turkye”, the Ottoman Empire eventually came to be known as “Turkey” or “The Turkish Empire” among its English-speaking contemporaries. The origins of the name “Turkey” can be traced to the self-designated name “Türk” or “Turk” of the Turkic ancestral tribe, first recorded in Göktürk inscriptions of the 6th century. The origins of the self-designated name are, however, unknown.
Although initially dismissed by the Ottomans, the name Türk eventually came to symbolize the young nation, united under the name of Türkiye—a Turkified variation of the same Medieval Latin Turquia, or an endonym of an exonym.
For the first time, Türkiye was used as the new name of the former Empire in the 1920 Treaty of Alexandropol. Upon the declaration of the republic on October 29, 1923, the official name of Türkiye was adopted as Türkiye Cumhuriyeti (the Republic of Turkey), and the nationalistic fervor culminated in the young nation’s slogan Türkler için Türkiye (Turkey for the Turks).
So, Why “Türkiye” and Why “Turkey”?
The country’s name Türkiye is a Turkified endonym based on the Medieval Latin exonym Turquia (meaning the “land of the Turks”), which most probably resulted from the Crusaders’ first military encounters with the Seljuk Turks and other Turkic tribes. The name Turquia itself is a Latinized exonym of the tribal self-designated endonym Türk, whose origins are unknown.
In other words, the name Türkiye is a Turkified endonym of the Medieval Latin exonym Turquia, which, in turn, is a Latinized exonym of the endonym Türk.
A small table may help to visualize the historical changes of the name:
In contrast, the English variant Turkey is a double exonym—as an anglicized exonym of the Medieval Latin exonym Turquia, which, in turn, is a Latinized exonym of the endonym Türk:
(U.K., U.S.A., Australia, etc.)
In short, the ways the country Turkey is referred to in other languages are all based on the same source: the Medieval Latin exonym Turquia (based on the endonym Türk).
So, what the Turkish government is asking for is that the Turkified version be favored over all other adapted variations of the same source exonym in a language that is now dead.
Still, Why Turquia?
What's interesting here, however, is this: Why did Europeans, who undoubtedly valued their trade agreements and military alliances with the Ottoman Empire, insist on referring to the Empire as Turquia, despite the Ottoman aversion to the notion of Türk?
Could it be that the endurance of the name Turquia may have been related to some additional historical boost caused by the discovery and the enormous popularity of the peculiarly looking North American bird, which, for some reasons, got (re)named after “the land of the Turks”?
The ironic twist in this (re)naming saga, however, is that the bird that may have been responsible for the enduring quality of the name Turquia was not the wild “turkey” from North America but the equally delicious and ugly looking helmeted guineafowl bird from Africa.
In the early 16th century, early explorers in the Americas reported seeing flocks of curiously looking native birds roaming in the magnolia forests. As explorers and early colonizers later learned, these birds had been domesticated and eaten by the Aztecs as well as the Native American tribes, thus holding a special status among the native cultures. And rightfully so, for the birds turned out to be supremely delicious! So, how come it came to be (re)named after a country in Asia MinorI?
Historically, many animals and birds have been misnamed or rather mis(re)named.
The adorable guinea pigs, for example, are not pigs at all; nor are they from Guinea, a West African country. Their homeland is actually Guyana in South America.
To a foreign ear, hearing Guyana or Guinea makes little difference, and suddenly our little piggy is moved across the Atlantic.
The pig part remains a mystery, however.
A similar, only the-other-way-around “adventure” befell the helmeted guineafowl, or Numidia meleagris (North African guineafowl), a bird native to Madagascar in Africa (and not Guinea). The helmeted guineafowl gets its name from the horn “helmet” on the top of its head and the wattle on each side of its beak. With its bead-like feathers striped black, white, and blue, its red eyes, and the vulturelike bare blue head, the bird makes a striking sight.
Delicious as it is ugly, guineafowl was widely exported and domesticated not only for food but also as an effective alarm system on farms, thanks to its loud gabbling at the first sign of an intruder. What’s more, guineafowl is a natural pest controller and a preventive against Lyme disease as a particularly well-suited consumer of massive quantities of ticks, as well as wasp nests.
Turkey Merchants and African Helmeted Guineafowl “Turkey Cocks”
So, it should be no surprise that helmeted guineafowl quickly became a hit with European explorers in Africa. This led to the growing demand for imports of the bird from Madagascar to Europe, along the massive land bridge between Africa and Eurasia, called Levant, through the capital of the Ottoman Empire, Constantinople. The strategically located city of Constantinople was the only sea route from the Black Sea to the Mediterranean and a merchants’ route from Europe and Asia.
By the 16th century, this route was dominated by the English merchants of Levant Company, or Company of Turkey Merchants, or simply Turkey Merchants, as they came to be known. Levant Company was set up to specifically monopolize commerce with the Ottoman Empire and to ensure England’s access to essential spices.
English meals at that time were anything but exotic or piquant, with no potatoes or tomatoes, no turkey, no post-meal cigars. The arrival of the exotically looking and deliciously tasting bird was a welcomed change, which was commonly attributed to Turkey Merchants. For this reason, soon enough, the bird came to be called a turkey cock.
Spanish Conquistadors, Portuguese Traders, and American “Turkeys”
The enriching exploitations of the New World of the 16th century merged with the burgeoning fascination with Middle Eastern, Asian, and North African cultures—the ultimate Other—emboldening Europeans to open up to new dietary adventures.
Around the same time, the Spanish conquistadors, Portuguese traders, and other early explorers of the Americas reported vast flocks of exotically looking birds nesting in the magnolia forests, which they brought back to Europe praising their culinary qualities. The bird quickly became popular in Spain, Portugal, and North Africa, which was then under Ottoman (Turkish) rule.
The demand for new exotic dishes, brought from a far-away exotic lands, prompted exports of the fowl to other European countries, and soon enough the bird arrived on English dinner tables as a revolutionizing addition in the bland English diet.
It seems that the North American bird was initially misidentified as a type of guineafowl—probably by the Pilgrims or some other first colony settlers, who may have mis(re)named the delicious bird after the similarly looking and tasty guineafowl “turkey cocks” back home.
Even though the bird’s correct scientific name was Meleagris gallopavo, it made little difference to the Spanish or Portuguese traders, or to European gourmands, for that matter, who continued enjoying the exotic imports of, you know, “turkeys”, brought from somewhere far away—either by the English Turkey Merchants, from Madagascar through the Ottoman capital of Constantinople, or by Spanish or Portuguese merchants, through some other Ottoman- or Turkey-ruled land.
In the early days of the European colonization of North America, the native wild turkey (Meleagris gallopavo) was confused with the African native helmeted guineafowl (Numidia meleagris).
Either way, the North American bird was such a sensation that, though it had been introduced to England only around 1520s, by the 1570s, it became the staple of every English Christmas celebration. At some point, the wires got crossed, and starting from the 1550s, the bird became known as a turkey.
Egocentrism of Mis(re)naming
As it happens, the egocentrism of name-marking is never a one-sided phenomenon. While Europeans readily attributed anything exotic to being from Turkey, the Turks, who also found the bird deliciously exotic, of course, knew that the bird was not theirs. Instead, they attributed the bird to another source of the contemporary exotism—India, so:
• The Turks called the bird a hindi, meaning Indian.
This also aligned with the common Elizabethan-era misconception that Columbus had found a route to India and that the New World was actually eastern Asia.
Many other nations shared this misconception:
• The French called the bird dindon or d’Inde, the shortened name from poule d’Inde, meaning Indian chicken.
• The Polish and Ukrainian called it indyk, meaning Indian bird.
• The Russian adopted the name as индюшка [indyushka], meaning bird of India.
• The Hebrew name for the bird is transliterated as tarnagol hodu, meaning chicken of India.
In India, however, they of course knew that the bird was not theirs, so:
• The Indians named the bird … a turki.
Other national names of the bird were variations combining the word “chicken” and its assumed place of origin, reflecting the spread of the domesticated “turkey” in the Old World: • The Khmer and Scots Gaelic names for the bird mean French chicken. • In Greece, it's galopoula, which can mean birdie or French chicken. • In Arabic-speaking countries, the bird was called dik rumi, meaning Greek chicken. And only the Portuguese, it seems, them being the traders of the bird and all, got it somewhat right: • The Portuguese called the bird a peru.
From Names to Objects to Concepts to Names
Names, of course, matter.
When the British came to the New World, they discarded the existent native names, renaming everything left and right, to claim their ownership. To signal that the new land was just an extension of their homeland, they often rebranded the surroundings by adding the prefixal “new” to the Old-World names: New York, New Amsterdam, New Hampshire, etc.
Names quickly become visual symbols rooted in real life objects, then themselves developing into real life concepts, which afterwards impact our language and our understanding of the world.
When choosing their national symbol, the United States statesmen chose the bald eagle. Yet some, like Benjamin Franklin, believed it should have been the wild turkey. In his letter to his daughter, he explains his choice by invoking strong and vivid anthropomorphic and, dare I say, deeply prejudiced associations:
Others object to the Bald Eagle, as looking too much like a Dindon, or Turkey. For my own part I wish the Bald Eagle had not been chosen the Representative of our Country. He is a Bird of bad moral Character. He does not get his Living honestly. You may have seen him perched on some dead Tree near the River, where, too lazy to fish for himself, he watches the Labour of the Fishing Hawk; and when that diligent Bird has at length taken a Fish, and is bearing it to his Nest for the Support of his Mate and young Ones, the Bald Eagle pursues him and takes it from him. With all this Injustice, he is never in good Case but like those among Men who live by Sharping & Robbing he is generally poor and often very lousy. Besides he is a rank Coward: The little King Bird not bigger than a Sparrow attacks him boldly and drives him out of the District. He is therefore by no means a proper Emblem for the brave and honest Cincinnati of America who have driven all the King birds from our Country...
I am on this account not displeased that the Figure is not known as a Bald Eagle, but looks more like a Turkey. For in Truth the Turkey is in Comparison a much more respectable Bird, and withal a true original Native of America ... He is besides, though a little vain & silly, a Bird of Courage, and would not hesitate to attack a Grenadier of the British Guards who should presume to invade his Farm Yard with a red Coat on.
Using this scathing comparison of bald eagles to turkeys, Franklin manages to delineate the entire civilizational clash between the Old Britain and the New American Republic. Galloping through his excursion into ornithology, Franklin quickly devolves into the bald eagle’s “character assassination” while exalting the turkey’s presumed nobleness.
So, should the contemporary Turks take this description of the turkey’s character personal? Should they feel upset about the comment “little vain & silly,” or should they be gratified that turkeys are characterized as respectable and courageous?
On the other hand, should Indians protest the Turks, or the French, or the Polish, or the Ukrainians for naming the bird after their country's name, which is actually another Classical Latin word based on the name of the Indus River?
Forget about the bird—all indigenous peoples in the Americas were branded Indian through the myopic Eurocentric ignorance and the general indifference of early colonizers. The U.S. indigenous tribes, despite the divisions between them, are still referred to as American Indians, whose names and images have come to symbolize the authentic Americana, either militant and athletic, or wise and peaceful, in native headdresses, frozen in the romantic idea of the American past.
Forever branded by chauvinism, the tragic reality of the indigenous peoples is that they have been virtually decimated by outsiders only to be adopted as a branding tool and memorialized on household products for corporate profit. Being reminded of that reality should give a sobering perspective to anyone obsessing over the hopeless matters of mis(re)naming.
To Conclude ...
In the end, tracing the hilarious chain of “turkey” misconceptions, which are, nonetheless, historically understandable, seems to tell us one thing for sure: There is no end to settling scores over the “great toponymic divide,” which easily expands to other name categories, where the names used by insiders almost always differ from the names used by outsiders. The only possible “winner” in these (re)naming games is history itself, or rather the knowledge of that history. Remember Spanish flu or Spanish influenza? The epidemic that killed millions of people during the WWI, many of whom were soldiers of the warring sides, did not originate in Spain. Fearing that the news of the epidemic would hamper the war efforts, the countries involved in the war intentionally suppressed the reporting on the disease. Spain, which remained neutral in the WWI, had no such motivation. So, the Spanish reporters quickly voiced the alarm about the spread of the disease, thus announcing the epidemic to the world. But other nations, especially those who were involved in the WWI, unaware of what was going at home, came to believe that Spain was the only place where people were dying from the devastating disease, forever associating the country with the disease itself, or at least with its origins, which, without the honest reporting of the cases, are impossible to establish. Now, whenever we’ve got an epidemic, which seems to have been increasing recently, we go back to the Spanish flu—not a pleasant, but probably bearable, thing to experience if you are Spanish. It seems to me that the only way to deal with any historical myths is to bust them! If the Turkish government examined the etymology of the country’s name, it would have seen the fascinating history of the name, spanning centuries of interactions between the West and the East, the Oriental and the Occidental, the New and the Old World. It would have rightfully claimed the name as its own, whether it is in English or in any other language, and maybe feel proud of the role it has played in the history of so many nations, and even continents.