What Does the Phrase ‘Talk Turkey’ Mean—And Where Did it Come From?

Before you talk turkey this Thanksgiving, find out what we know about the phrase’s meaning and origins.

Around Thanksgiving, you may use the phrase talk turkey literally to discuss the bird you’re having for dinner, but initially, the phrase—which was first recorded in 1824—meant “to discuss something pleasantly.” Then, talking turkey came to mean “having an honest and frank discussion” (in the U.S. and Canada, anyway).

One legend has it the phrase originated in a joke where a white man and Native American man were hunting together; after nabbing birds both tasty (turkeys) and not (buzzards), the white man tried to persuade his friend to take the buzzards, not the turkey—to which the Native American hunter allegedly responded, “You’re not talking turkey to me.”

Another story, per World Wide Words, is that the phrase “arose because the first contacts between Native Americans and settlers often [centered] on the supply of wild turkeys, to the extent that Indians were said to have [inquired] whenever they met a colonist, ‘you come to talk turkey?’”

Regardless of where the phrase came from, it quickly spread, and at some point, it was modified to talk cold turkey, which had essentially the same meaning: “to speak frankly and without reserve; to talk hard facts, get down to business,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary. (The phrase cold turkey, meaning “to abruptly quit an addictive substance,” dates back to the 1920s and likely evolved separately.)

Talk turkey is just one of several terms related to the fowl: Walk turkey, for example, means “to strut or swagger,” and can also refer to the pitching and rolling of a ship. Pea-turkey, meanwhile, refers to the act of not speaking at all, as in, “She never said pea-turkey to me about it,” a citation from 1909. Turkey itself can serve as slang for many things, including, according to Green’s Dictionary of Slang, “a state of drunkenness” (a mid-19th century meaning that may derive from the stagger of those under the influence), a large suitcase (thanks to the resemblance of an overstuffed bird), and “an unappealing and worthless thing” or “a disappointment.”

Before you talk turkey this Thanksgiving, read some fascinating facts about the bird (which is named after the country, by the way), find out why we eat what we eat on the holiday, and brush up on other turkey-related terms you might want to use at the table.

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