For me, studying the origin of words is above all a conversation. We tell stories, we argue, we converse with and teach one another, and we get to know one another better. I am talking here as much about languages, nations and cultures as I am about individuals.
Certainly, the field has its men of learning, its specialists and scholars. I am not among them. My ambition is only to be an enlightened amateur. I have fun, I learn and I pass on what I learn the way men of letters once did — except that I do it with today’s tools, which allow me to receive in my study not one or two friends who happen to be passing by, but hundreds of people from all over.
The domesticated animal I wish to discuss today is known in various languages by the name of a country. In French, we call it “dinde”, – originally “d’Inde”, i.e. “from India”. In English, the same animal is known as a turkey; in Lebanon and some other arab countries, the male turkey is called “dik habash”, meaning Abyssinian — that is to say Ethiopian — cock; but the Egyptians called it “dik roumi”, which literally translates as Roman rooster but by which they really mean a Greek one1 . The Greeks themselves know the turkey as a “gallopoula”, which means French hen. As for the Turks, they simply call the turkey a “hindi”2.
Yet this fowl fares not from India, nor Turkey, nor yet Ethiopia, but from America, from where Christopher Columbus brought the first specimens back to Europe. In Portuguese, the animal is called a ‘Peru.’ And it is understood among French-speakers that the French word for turkey refers to the wrongly identified ‘India’. The explorer’s mistake — he thought he had reached India from the west — has never been completely rectified, since we continue to talk about American ‘Indians’ 500 years later.
It’s true that the word ‘America’ itself results from a misunderstanding. But that will be the theme of another post.
- How did the word “rumi” and its plural “rum” come to mean “Greek” instead of the literal meaning of “Roman”? This is a very unusual story to which I’ll be coming back very soon. [↩]
- For further examples of the names given to this bird, see the dedicated page in the online encyclopaedia Wikipedia. [↩]