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My Web of Words – 2 – Turkey


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.

  1. 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. []
  2. For further examples of the names given to this bird, see the  dedicated page in the online encyclopaedia Wikipedia. []

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  1. #1 by máirtin mac aodha on August 27th, 2009

    This is a great idea for a blog. This piece on avian matters and words based on misunderstandings brought the French word ‘foie gras’ to mind. This much loved food product is made from the liver of a duck or goose that has been specially fattened. The word ‘foie’ , which interests me here, comes from the Latin ‘jecur ficatum’. ‘Jecur’ is the Latin word for liver and the two words together mean liver stuffed with figs, a popular dish in Roman times. It is this ‘ficatum’ and not jecur that was mistakenly taken as the basis for the French word for liver ‘foie’.

  2. #2 by Alexander Gilly on August 29th, 2009

    That’s very interesting Máirtin, and got me wondering about the origin of the homophonous ‘foi’ … a quick look in Le Petit Robert told me that ‘foi’ comes of course from Latin ‘fides’ (same as the English ‘faith’).

    The shift from ‘ficatum’ to ‘foie’ and ‘fides’ to ‘foi’ creates a booby trap for the inattentive student of French, since ‘foie’, despite the final e, is masculine [le foie gras], while ‘foi’ is feminine [la bonne foi].

  3. #3 by Engin on September 28th, 2009

    The story behind the word “Turkey” in english is that long before America’s discovery, English merchants have already discovered a similar bird that they import from Turkey and called “çulluk” pronounced as “Chulluk” so when a similar bird from America made its way to England they named it “Turkey bird” or simply “turkey”. See http://web.mit.edu/mskilic/www/turkeyname.html for the whole story.

  4. #4 by Alex on January 12th, 2010

    In a curious piece of symmetry, the Egyptian ‘dik roumi’ (Greek cock) is paralleled by the Macedonian ‘misirka’ (Egyptian).
    Someone here (http://linguistlist.org/issues/7/7-174.html) has translated ‘dik roumi’ as ‘Turkish cock’. I suppose originally roumi meant Roman (then successively Byzantine, Ottoman) so ‘roumi’ could mean either depending on context. Any comments on how the term is specifically understood in Egypt?

  5. #5 by Serkan on March 4th, 2010

    Hello mr. Amin, My name is Serkan,I am a student at Marmara University of Turkey. I didn’t like your latest book. Realy! I didn’t like your latest book. Turkey and Ataturk incomplete and the rating of calls is incorrect. Political system still incomplete and erroneous calls about reviews. I would like to see you only when you are writing novels. I really apologize for saying. But you have to tell them to have value

    Please write only novels

  6. #6 by Ayla Kosebey on July 4th, 2011

    Engin :
    The story behind the word “Turkey” in english is that long before America’s discovery, English merchants have already discovered a similar bird that they import from Turkey and called “çulluk” pronounced as “Chulluk” so when a similar bird from America made its way to England they named it “Turkey bird” or simply “turkey”. See http://web.mit.edu/mskilic/www/turkeyname.html for the whole story.

  7. #7 by Ayla Kosebey on July 30th, 2011

    Dear Sir,

    I would suppose that you have recovered so far.We are looking forward to hearing from you on the “Arab Spring”.

    Best regards

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