Friday, December 20, 2013

Talking Turkey



We saw them for the first time yesterday afternoon, large dark forms bobbing uphill beneath the trees, their tails dragging through the snow.  Birds of some sort.  We got out Peterson's Field Guide to Eastern and Central North American Birds and tried to match the trailing forms to the pictures in the book: quail? grouse? They looked like turkeys, but were they big enough? We argued back and forth--they did't have red heads or obvious wattles; were they bald or not? Did they have stripes? They kept their distance from us and disappeared over the hill behind the house. Spruce grouse, we thought, but then last night I kept thinking, that body form, it looks like an African guineafowl, without the spots.


This morning they were back, clustered under the birdfeeder, chickadees fluttering over their heads. Marike called me out of my bath, and Elisabeth and I crowded at the window with our cameras.

Turkeys, for sure. Those tiny bald blue heads we'd seen on the guajolotes in Mexico, the pink legs and three-toed feet, the enormous breasts and fantails.  We checked Peterson's Field Guide again just to be sure. Yes, there they were, Mealeagris gallopavo, "bronzy iridescent body; barred wings." They seemed to be females, eleven in all.


At first the turkeys watched us carefully and ran away each time we shadowed the window with our cameras. But then they got braver and approached the house again, clustering around a near bush at the back, scratching away the snow. One or two even looked up and peered back at us, eye to curious eye.  Where had they come from? I started looking up stories on turkeys.


Turns out they sleep in the trees, although it's rare ever to see them there.  They were named by Europeans who saw them in North America and thought they resembled the guineafowl seen sometimes in Turkey (my association with African Guineafowl wasn't so daft after all, or, perhaps more precisely, no more daft than many other Eurocentric associations and geographical mistakes starting with the discovery of indians in the Carribean), domesticated in Mexico (the Mexican name, guajolote comes from the Nahuatl word, huex├│lotl, or "big monster"), and imported to Spain and thence to England and the rest of Europe in the 16th century. Wild turkeys, however, range throughout the Americas, and are once again roaming the forests in North America, after near extermination in the early 20th Century.

There you have it, my turkey talk. Now to go find one for Christmas supper.

Which we did, immediately after lunch--we drove to Aliments d'antan ("food the way it used to be") in Knowlton, Quebec and got a lovely 18 pound turkey, cleaned and plucked and ready for stuffing (not exactly d'antan, but that's okay).  And then on the way home, as we were slipping up the hill in 4-wheel drive in deep wet snow, we saw a wild turkey perched in the branches of fir tree. Proof positive they can fly.


On the etymology of "talking turkey"

"Talking turkey" is an expression that seems to have originated in the United States in the colonial period.  Michael Quinion, cider maker and etymologist extraordinaire explains that

"the meaning of the phrase seems to have shifted down the years. To start with it meant to speak agreeably, or to say pleasant things; nowadays it usually refers to speaking frankly, discussing hard facts, or getting down to serious business. The change seems to have happened because to “talk turkey” was augmented at some point in the nineteenth century to “talk cold turkey”, with the modern meaning. In the course of time it was abbreviated again, with the shorter form keeping the newer meaning. (The other meaning of “cold turkey” is unrelated.)

The most prosaic answer is that the “to talk pleasantly” sense came about through the nature of family conversation around the Thanksgiving dinner table. It is also suggested that it arose because the first contacts between Native Americans and settlers often centred on the supply of wild turkeys, to the extent that Indians were said to have enquired whenever they met a colonist, “you come to talk turkey?”.

Quinion then goes on to tell a version of story about the origin of the phrase that apparently first appeared in Niles Weekly Register (NY) on June 3, 1837. He doesn't find that story very convincing or satisfactory (not getting satisfaction is in part what the story is about), but for what it is worth, here it is, apparently as printed in 1837:

"Talking turkey," "as we understand it," means to talk to a man as he wants to be talked to, and the phrase is thus derived. An Indian and a white man went a shooting in partnership and a wild turkey and a crow were all the results of the day's toil. The white man, in the usual style of making a bargain with the Indian proposed a division of the spoils in this way: "Now Wampum, you may have your choice: you take the crow, and I'll take the turkey; or, if you'd rather, I'll take the turkey and you take the crow." Wampum reflected a moment on the generous alternative thus offered, and replied - "Ugh! you no talk turkey to me a bit." 

This story makes me want to propose a new definition: "talking turkey" is a rhetorical ploy and is always political; it's what the lying party (settler) says they're going to do when they're about to try to trick another (first inhabitant, citizen) into giving up the goods, as in "The World Trade Organization is all about talking turkey" or "Banks have a new policy of talking turkey with citizens when they say 'give us your money and we'll keep it safely.'" In other words, no matter what they say, "talking turkey" is all about lying.

1 comment:

  1. A few words on turkeys from my friend and fellow poet, Brian Cullen: a few words (before i must continue with dinner prep.). it's about wild turkeys, after reading your blogspot finally. i've tried -- unsuccessfully -- to "hunt" them with my car in argenta in the past. they seem quite slow when they're crossing the road, but they're actually very quick. i've tried to hit them with the door of my car (opening it very quickly and swerving towards them to knock them out as i drive past), but they're quick to get out of the way. they're relatively new arrivals to the kootenays in southern bc, as far as i know -- finding they're way into the ecology due to lack of matched predators. their clutches can be quite large, and despite their adult size it seems they're very adaptable; i mean in terms of their reproduction rates and in being able to get away and fly up into the trees at a moment's notice. to see the male's displaying in early spring with their tails all fanned out and their heads sky-blue is a bit spooky (the dance, and the crescendo of gobbles and clucking). anyway, just wanted to share that with you after reading your blog, because the first time i saw them in the kootenays it made me turn. they can be quite tasty to eat, but also "gamey" and tough -- depending on how young you shoot them i suppose (friend roland shared some with me on various thanksgivings).

    Thanks Brian!

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