How did a North American bird and a country in Asia Minor come to share the name Turkey? It turns out to be a rather complicated story.
The name of the country came first. The Ottoman Empire was often referred to as the Turkish Empire in the Middle Ages. This name was given by the Crusaders in the eleventh century but derived from one of the ancestral tribes who went by the name Türk or Türük. The Medieval Latin term Turquia came into English as Turkeye, first used by Chaucer circa 1369. The Turkish version of the name was not adopted until the establishment of the republic on October 29, 1923, when it became Türkiye Cumhuriyeti (Republic of Turkey).
The naming of the bird is a bit more complex and there are a number of theories about its origin. One possibility involves the helmeted guineafowl of Madagascar. While these birds had been known by the ancient Greeks, they disappeared in Europe after the fall of the Roman Empire. They then were reintroduced by Portuguese explorers beginning in the 14th century. The birds were easily domesticated and soon became popular with Europeans. One of the main trade routes one which they were transported went directly through the Ottman Empire. By the 16th century, this trade route was dominated by the English merchants of Levant Company, or Company of Turkey Merchants. As a result of this connection, the birds eventually became known as turkey cocks/hens. When early settlers came to North American, they encountered similar looking birds. They then misidentified this new fowl as the turkey cocks/hens they already knew.
An alternative theory is that Spanish conquistadors and Portuguese traders discovered the new North American fowl and brought it back with them. It too became widely popular and gradually made its way north and east. In this process, the birds’ original origin became murky and some thought that they originated in the Ottoman or Turkish Empire.
Yet another theory also suggests that they were brought back from the Americans by the Spanish, but that they were captured during one of a series of naval battles fought between the Ottomans and Spanish in the 16th century. They then were brought to the Ottoman Empire where they were seen by Englishmen who began calling them “birds of Turkey.”
Whatever the reason for its origin, the name turkey has endured in the English-speaking world. So while the English settlers borrowed many other names for animals from the native people they encountered – racoon, opossum, and coyote, for example – they did not use any of the many possible terms for the unique North American fowl: monanow (Powhatan), tshikenum (Delaware), nahiam (Algonkian), nahenan (Narragansett), neyhom (Natick and Wampanoag), nahame (Abnaki), and netachrochwa gatschinale (Iroquois). Instead, they persisted with the word they already knew, turkey.
To learn more about this history and the impact and influence of turkeys, check out The Turkey: An American Story.