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Turkey, The Seven-Faced Bird (T)

Poor Turkey, not just because so many of them end up on the table for Thanksgiving and Christmas but because the old turkey has been foully misnamed. M. Pei, the Italian linguist, not the Chinese architect, theorised that the bird, turkey, was so named because it was mistaken for a guinea fowl that was brought to the Americas from Europe by Turkish merchants. Guinea fowl are native to Guinea in West Africa and were possibly brought across to Europe by Indian traders, which perhaps accounts for why the Turkish say turkeys are from India and call them, hindi, and the French followed suit, calling the turkey, coq d’Inde, from India, which eventually became shortened to become dinde. But as it turns out, turkeys are not from Turkey or India; they are native to North America.

With so many names and places it calls its origin, it is perhaps unsurprising that the turkey is called 七面鳥shichimenchō or seven-faced bird in Japan. Is the Japanese word for turkey related to the expression 八方美人 happōbijin or eight-faced beauty, the uber two-faced and cold-hearted person who, like a politician, presents a good face to be in the good books of everyone?

Or, maybe the turkey is more like the Patuxet, Tisquantum, who, though native to North America, was kidnapped, sold into slavery and slave-named, Squanto. Like Tisquantum, who, though robbed of human integrity, still found it in him to teach us how to cultivate land, trade fur and give us the day we’ve come to call, Thanksgiving, and completely inadvertently, Black Friday, Cyber Monday…

Still, there’s nothing like a full plate of turkey at Thanksgiving dinner, and emerging from the pandemic, I have a lot to be grateful for. So happy Thanksgiving and Friendsgiving everyone, in all its modern-day permutations.

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Haru Yamada Mathieu
Haru Yamada Mathieu

A friend pointed out that in Korean, the turkey is also called a seven-faced bird because it has seven colors. She is right and that is probably also the meaning behind the Japanese name.

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