Why Do We Say 'Talk Turkey'?

By: Alia Hoyt  | 

turkey with megaphone
The phrase "talk turkey" means to speak frankly. But do turkeys always give it to you straight? alashi/Getty Images

The entire U.S.A. is about to "talk turkey" because of the approaching Thanksgiving holiday. But, in the words of the immortal character of Inigo Montoya from "The Princess Bride," "I do not think it means what you think it means."

Although many people will say "talk turkey" in reference to the preparing, cooking and eating of the beloved Thanksgiving bird, it actually means to "speak openly or frankly." The phrase was first formally recorded back in 1824, although it originated much earlier, in colonial times.

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It doesn't have the most uplifting background. Although no one is completely sure of its origin, the Columbia Journalism Review says one common story is that a Native American and a white man went hunting together and scored a variety of birds, like buzzards, crows and turkeys. At the end of the hunt, the white man allegedly said, "You take the crow and I'll take the turkey, or if you'd rather, I'll take the turkey and you keep the crow," to which the American Indian replied, "You're not talking turkey to me." In other words, "You're keeping the better bird for yourself," or "You're not being straight with me." (This speaks to the long history of white settlers cheating Native Americans of their land and property in the U.S.)

Use of "talk turkey" probably spread organically, the way most sayings do — through word-of-mouth. However, it went mainstream in 1837 when Niles' Weekly Register, a popular magazine at the time, printed a version of the story. The rest, as they say, is history.

Another theory about the origin of the phrase says that since the white settlers and Native Americans often chatted about the buying and selling of wild turkeys, it's rumored that when a colonist approached, the Native Americans began to say, "You come to talk turkey?"

Of course, many phrases and words are known for having double meanings, and "talk turkey" is yet another example of such. Dictionaries from the early 19th century refer to the phrase to mean talking about "something pleasant." This is allegedly related to the enjoyable, sometimes meaningless chats that occur during a big meal, especially the Thanksgiving Day feast.

Depending on the time period and region of the country, there's a lot of variation on what it actually means to "talk turkey." But don't worry too much if you use it incorrectly. No one's likely to call you out, and even if they do, you can just "talk turkey" to them about the rude gaffe. See what we did there? Gobble gobble!

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