Where did the phrase "talking turkey" come from?

Posted at 10:30 AM, Nov 27, 2014

There are few things that politicians do better than “talk turkey.” They might not be known for being able to accomplish much, at least in the last few years, but when it comes to conversing with one another, they are pros at getting down to business.

The word turkey surprisingly has a lot of dual meanings. Of course it’s known primarily as the big-feathered bird everyone enjoys during their Thanksgiving feast. While taking home a turkey is considered a brag-worthy feat, being called one is, in contrast, considered an insult.

Today the term ‘talk turkey’ means to discuss something frankly and practically. When someone 'talks turkey' they get to the point and the term often refers to settling a business deal.

But that wasn’t always the case.

Historically the term’s meaning has varied. Dictionary entries from the 1800s note that talking turkey has meant both talking about something pleasant—likely referring to the dinner conversations that occur during a Thanksgiving feast—and also talking in a silly manner—like the weird way turkey’s walk and act.

The origin of  “talk turkey” seems to come from colonial times. Historical accounts suggest the phrase came about from the day-to-day bartering between colonists and Indians over wild turkeys. One piece of folklore in particular has stood the test of time as the origin of the phrase, although it’s hard to determine whether the story actually happened.

An account of the tale comes from an 1837 article in the Niles’ Weekly Register:

“An Indian and a white man went a shooting in partnership and a wild turkey and a crow were all the results of the day's toil. The white man, in the usual style of making a bargain with the Indian proposed a division of the spoils in this way: "Now Wampum, you may have your choice: you take the crow, and I'll tale the turkey; or, if you'd rather, I'll take the turkey and you take the crow." Wampum reflected a moment on the generous alternative thus offered, and replied - "Ugh! You no talk turkey to me a bit."

Today there’s a lot of talking turkey, especially in boardrooms, congressional hearings and at political debates. One more reason why, on Thanksgiving, it’s nice to just sit back and eat the turkey instead.

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