STEVE INSKEEP, host:

We've been trying to find out the answer to a burning question that is especially relevant on this Thanksgiving Day. More properly, NPR science correspondent Robert Krulwich has been trying to find out for a long time. Back in the '70s, he interviewed a very eminent professor. We still have the tape of that interview, though it's old and scratchy. And though the professor died 30 years ago, Robert is still at it.

ROBERT KRULWICH: So here's a question. The turkey is an American bird. It's found in the USA, Canada, sometimes Mexico, and nowhere else. So it is a totally North American animal. Why then is it named for a country, Turkey? Wondering about this a long time ago, I called up the then most eminent authority on nomenclature questions, a professor of Romance languages at Columbia University, the late Mario Pei. And shortly before he died, I asked him first, what did the original Americans call the turkey?

(Soundbite of vintage recording)

Professor MARIO PEI (Romance Languages, Columbia University): The Indians have something like 3,000 different languages. Each one called it in its own language.

KRULWICH: But in no case, he said, did any tribe ever call it by the name "turkey." And then later, when Europeans first took turkeys back to Europe, it was again called many different names, mostly because nobody really knew what it was. In Spain, for example, they said this - it is a peacock.

(Soundbite of vintage recording)

Professor PEI: Then they renamed the peacock, and they called it pavo real, which means royal turkey.

KRULWICH: In France they were still thinking maybe America's part of India, so...

(Soundbite of vintage recording)

Professor PEI: The French began calling it cocque d'Inde.

KRULWICH: Cock means chicken. D'Inde means...

(Soundbite of vintage recording)

Professor PEI: From India.

KRULWICH: From India. The Greeks who don't like anything from Turkey, they called it a rooster, which it isn't. And the Italians, much along the same lines...

(Soundbite of vintage recording)

Professor PEI: They'll call it galinachio(ph), which means a bad rooster, a big bad rooster.

KRULWICH: But nobody called this bird turkey, except the English. Now why turkey? Well, if you lived in London in the 1500s, there were lots of things you'd call Turkey: Turkey bags, Turkey wheat, Turkey rugs. Turkey was kind of shorthand for something that came from Asia or from far away. So like New Yorkers who think of the rest of America as, ah, it's New Jersey, Londoners were just as parochial.

(Soundbite of vintage recording)

Professor PEI: They would consider an Indian thing and a Turkish thing as being about the same sort of thing.

KRULWICH: So, if a strange new bird shows up from some far away country, it was only natural to call it a turkey, because Turkey means "far away." That's how the turkey got its name. Or, says Professor Pei, there's one last possibility. Before Columbus discovered America, Europeans already ate a tasty little bird from Africa called a guinea fowl. In Britain they called this bird a turkey-coq, because it was shipped in from Turkey.

(Soundbite of birds squawking)

KRULWICH: So maybe when British settlers stepped off the Mayflower and heard the cry of this wild fowl in the American forest, when they wondered...

Unidentified British Man: What is that?

KRULWICH: ...the only name they had for a wild forest bird was the name they used back home for an African bird.

Unidentified British Woman: Let's call it a turkey.

KRULWICH: The point is for 500 years now, this altogether American, very gallant, if not particularly intelligent animal has never once been given an American name. Robert Krulwich, NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

INSKEEP: It doesn't even have an American name overseas. People all over the world now eat American turkeys, but do not call them turkeys. Across Arabia they call it diiq Hindi, or the Indian Rooster. And if you're wondering what the Turks call our turkey, they call it Hindi, which is short for India.

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