Talking Turkey

Less inquisitive people would most likely dismiss the connection between turkeys and Turkey, the country, as mere coincidence. Someone once told me that Turkey was named after the New World bird, although considering that the nation’s name can predated to at least 1369 in Chaucer’s The Book of the Duchess, the bird was not discovered by Europeans until Columbus’ 1493 expedition.

The link itself is somewhat more tenuous, and actually pertains to guinea fowl.

You see, helmeted guinea fowl were considered to be a bit of a food trend in medieval Europe. They were imported from Madagascar through Turkey, then part of the Ottoman Empire, via the Mediterranean Sea.

The merchants that brought this species to Europe were often referred to as “Turkey merchants”, which is the first point in which the perception turns fowl. Sorry. This term initially referred to the homeland of the merchants and not their cargo, just to be clear, however this appears to have fallen into a misconception among some that the birds themselves were called turkeys, with the terms “turkey hen” and “Turkish chicken” being used to describe guinea fowl frequently at the time.

Fast forward one perilous seafaring expedition, and Christopher Columbus has happened upon the New World with all its exciting new produce such as tobacco, potatoes and, my oh my, a species of bird domesticated by the Aztecs that had an uncanny resemblance to the guinea fowl.

Introduced to England by the 1530s, this new bird was mistakenly also given the name “turkey”, due to a mixture of physical similarity, tastiness and also being a reasonably new, exotic discovery.

The Turks, just to be wrong in their own way, called guinea fowl “hindi” due to an inexplicable misconception that the bird came from the east, in India.

Letting the Cat Out of the Bag

To let the cat out of the bag is an idiom, meaning to reveal a secret, and the best theory we have of its origin stems from a pig in a poke. Don’t panic, I’ll explain that one, too.

A pig in a poke is another idiom, meaning a product that is bought in packaging, thus the contents are not visible to the buyer upon purchase. The name itself derives from purchasing suckling pigs at markets, which were kept in bags or sacks – or a “poke” – to prevent them from escaping. “Poke” comes from the French “poque“, which is where we get “pouch” and “pocket”.

The theory being that people were sold such bags under the pretence that inside were juicy, delicious suckling pigs when, in fact, they were being sold an incredibly less valuable cat. The “letting the cat out of the bag” being the wholly too-late realisation of the customer that they had been scammed into buying said cat, and therefore the fraudster’s secret coming to light.

This is referred to by John Heywood in 1555, who wrote;

I wyll neuer bye the pyg in the poke Thers many a foule pyg in a feyre cloke

John Heywood, 1555

There are translations in French, Dutch and German for this idiom, indicating that it was a common enough scam throughout European societies.

This version has faced much criticism, simply because it seems someone would have to be rather dense to mistake a cat for a piglet – the Spanish equivalent seems more plausible, “dar gato por liebre“, “giving a cat instead of a hare”.

The idiom itself has no record until 1760, however, and saw a surge in usage throughout the late 18th Century, which implies that it was a new-fangled thing.

Although we may not know for a certainty where the phrase came from, one thing is certain…

Letting the cat out of the bag is a whole lot easier than putting it back in.

Will Rogers