Nobody can explain the turkey.
The expression to talk turkey has been with us for a long time. We’re still not sure where it comes from, though, much less how turkeys got involved. You’d think turkeys had enough to worry about besides English usage. Especially this time of year.
Turkeys mean American Thanksgiving (a retronym, like acoustic guitar—thank you, my many Canadian friends). Which of course is why I’ve turned to British reference works for an explanation as to the meaning of the expression.
The Oxford Dictionary of English Idioms (third edition) notes “North American informal.” Although no cite is provided, it does offer the tantalizing observation that “This phrase was first recorded in the mid 19th century, when it had generally the rather different sense of ‘say pleasant things or talk politely.’ Although several theories have been put forward, its origins are not clear.”
The Oxford Dictionary of Modern Slang (second edition) also notes the expression to talk turkey as originating in North America, but then chooses as its example a line from Agatha Christie—“Send for a high-powered lawyer and tell him you’re willing to talk turkey,” which seems to avoid the North American question, except possibly by associating high-powered lawyers with the United States. In any case, if I want to know the origin of a North American expression I don’t expect to turn to the crime-solving queen of Torquay.
A long drive to that other university, or just an inch or so along the library shelf, and one arrives at the Cambridge Idioms Dictionary. Cambridge, it turns out, is a more hopeful place than Oxford. Here, to talk turkey—“mainly American”—is “to discuss a problem in a serious way with a real intention to solve it.”
Elsewhere in Britain the Cassell Dictionary of English Idioms (English as in language, not as in a majority share of British) invests its authority in a parenthetical: “(esp. N Am. coll.) to come to the point, to talk business.”
What these four volumes have in common is an eager identification of talk turkey with us informal, coll. North Americans. This is lexicographic buck-passing.
It doesn’t get much better here at home. McGraw-Hill’s Dictionary of American Idioms (fourth edition) succinctly defines talk turkey: “Fig. to talk business, to talk frankly.” Hmph.
Not a word about turkeys. I bet they hoped we wouldn’t notice.
The only expression I know of that comes close to talk turkey is to talk tachlis, derived, according to Leo Rosten’s The Joys of Yiddish, “from the Hebrew for ‘purpose,’ ‘end.’”
This definition stresses outcomes, rather than candor or problem-solving. “What tachlis will that produce?” Rosten asks. For him, the question “What’s the tachlis?” corresponds to “What are the real effects, the practical aspects?” “Let’s get down to brass tacks.”
I felt I was getting somewhere, that I was in the hands of a pragmatic therapist. That is, until we got to brass tacks and the whole idiom nightmare threatened to go down yet another dark corridor.
Yiddish in turn seems to have lent the Hebrew tachlis to German, where the expression Tacheles reden means, according to German’s great Duden dictionary, to express one’s view without evasion or misrepresentation (that’s a loose translation). But from Rosten to Duden, there are no turkeys.
So we seem to be left with an antiquated sense of talk turkey as polite conversation followed by various attempts to fine-tune a cigar-chewing sense of getting to the point, cutting through the crap, telling it straight.
This Thanksgiving, may your meals be filled with old-fashioned polite conversation about pleasant things spiced with enough candor and to-the-point-coming to make the long journey worth it. The holiday is no place to talk business, and the tacks—brass or otherwise—should be left just where you found them. Thanksgiving’s difficult enough already.
And as for the turkey, that plus-size photogenic creature of little brain and dry, stringy flesh, you might talk it rather than consume it.
The first person who works the phrase talk Tofurkey into conversation wins an extra helping of pie.
You can follow me on Twitter @WmGermano, where turkey is occasionally spoken.
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