Monday, October 8, 2012

Let's talk turkey: More odd word and phrase origins

Whether appropriate for Thanksgiving or not, I’ve been wanting to “talk turkey” with my followers for some time now. It all started when my significant other, who plays in a Tuesday night mixed bowling league, came home and boasted that he’d bowled three turkeys—or nine strikes—in a row. I remember looking at him quizzically and wondering where this expression—and others using turkey—originated.

Let’s talk turkey

In the United States and Canada, particularly allusively, to talk turkey means to talk affably or agreeably. More specifically, to talk turkey also means to use high-flown language. Don’t worry, though, I’ll try to dispense with all gobbledygook, whose etymology I’ll get to later.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, talk turkey was first used in this sense in Little Bit of Tid-Re-I (1824):

So that, all things considered, I hope neither the Indian, whom the Yankey could not cheat in the division of their game (a turkey and a buzzard,) will accuse me of not talking Turkey to them in this article.

The colloquial meaning familiar to most of us—that is, “to talk plainly”—is more recent. A citation in Dialect Notes (1890–) from 1903 reads “I'm going to talk turkey with him and see if I can't get him to mend his ways.”

Although no longer restricted to North America, the phrase “to talk cold turkey” means to speak frankly and without reserve; to talk hard facts, to get down to business. This is further supported by another citation in the January 4, 1928, issue of the Daily Express: “She talked cold turkey about sex. ‘Cold turkey’ means plain truth in America.”

Keep it simple: No gobbledygook

As I mentioned, talking turkey may also mean to use high-flown language. Nathaniel Bacon, in his 1647 An historicall discourse of the uniformity of the government of England (first edition), stated that “As yet oppression was not so high flown.” A letter by Charlotte Brontë published in Elizabeth Cleghorn Gaskell’s The Life of Charlotte Brontë (1857) includes the passage “In a high-flown humour, he forbade me to use either dictionary or grammar.”

Without any other context, the language in each of these citations seems elevated to me too.

As I explained in “Political rhetoric: double-talk, gobbledygook, gibberish and jabberwocky?” (24 August 2012), gobbledygook is Texas lawyer Maury Maverick’s name for the long, high-sounding words of Washington’s red-tape language. In 1944, the plainspoken Maverick, expressing disdain for his colleagues’ propensity for stuffy, obfuscatory, bureaucratic language and jargon, wrote an official memo to his colleagues and subordinates, urging them to speak and write in plain English. It read, in part

Stay off the gobbledygook language. It only fouls people up. For Lord’s sake, be short and say what you’re talking about… Anyone using the words ‘activation’ and ‘implementation’ will be shot!

Asked later why he chose the word gobbledygook, Maverick replied

Perhaps I was thinking of the old bearded turkey gobbler back in Texas who was always gobbledy-gobblin’ and struttin’ with ludicrous pomposity. At the end of this gobble there was a sort of … ‘gook.’

So, getting back to my beloved, who came home walking turkey after a 244–point game, proudly strutting around our kitchen, telling me of the turkeys he’d scored, I wondered whether he’d become some kind of bowling phenom.

In bowling, a strike indicates that all of the pins have been knocked down with the first ball of a frame. Two consecutive strikes are referred to as a “double”, and three consecutive strikes are called a “turkey”. Although there is no recorded derivation of the term, Chuck Pezzana, historian of the Professional Bowlers Association, claims that, during the Great Depression of the 1930s, many bowling alleys held sweepstakes during Thanksgiving and Christmas and offered food as gifts.

Before the advent of automated pin setting machines, bowling alleys employed men (sometimes called “pin monkeys”) to set up the pins. This meant there was little consistency in the way the pins were placed and bowling a turkey was far more difficult than it is today. When a player accomplished this, his or her teammates would shout, “Turkey!” to tell the proprietor that the prize had been won. Incidentally, a perfect game—one in which a player scores 12 consecutive strikes—is colloquially known as a “Thanksgiving turkey”.

Give up blogging cold turkey? Are you nuts?

I’ll be the first to admit that I’m a little obsessive when it comes to tracing the origins of words and common expressions. My goal, in writing this blog, is to share with my readers a little insight into one of my great passions. There’s no asking me to give up my love of words, etymology and language—cold turkey or otherwise. As it happens, cold turkey, originally North American slang, refers to a method of treating a drug addiction by sudden and complete withdrawal of the drug, rather than through a gradual process. Being deprived of my dictionaries? Are you crazy? I can’t begin to imagine what Charlotte Brontë must have felt. How horrible!

One final note: a 1927 issue of Vanity Fair describes a turkey as “a third rate production”. I certainly hope that this latest entry was no disappointing flop of little value.

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