Historically Speaking

Making sense of it all!

Talking Turkey

Posted by Elyse Bruce on December 18, 2013

When someone talks turkey, they’re being honest and direct about an issue. The intention is to discuss something seriously, and to resolve the issues that are part of the issue.

On November 23, 2013, Directors Magazine published an article with information compiled by Mark Newel, Jon Campbell and Lou Yost. The focus was on geographical locations across America that had key Thanksgiving themes in their names such as Turkey, Pilgrim, and Cranberry. The article was aptly titled, “USGS: Let’s Talk Turkey Across The Landscape.”

In Volume 39 of the Magazine of Business published in 1921, an article titled, “Over The Executive’s Desk” used the idiom repeatedly. The opening paragraph read thusly:

When business folks begin to “talk turkey,” interest grows. And those interested in the “talk” work, think and progress with increasing intensity. This is not theory; we all know it to be a fact. It was on this principle that the general sales manager of the American Slicing Machine Company based his campaign against tardiness and absenteeism in the office.

The American Clay Magazine reported on anything and everything relating to clay workers and the clay industry. Published by the American Clay Machinery Company, the company was touted as a brick manufacturer that not only made bricks, but one that also made a speciality of building machinery adapted to every peculiarity of clay regardless of location or country in which the clay was found. In one of the 1907 issues, one of the articles discussed the continuous kiln in Youngstown on the Bessimer yards, and within that article the following was stated:

But shaw! what’s the use of talking to you, Mr. Brickmaker, about the benefits of a brick home. What is necessary is for you to talk turkey to your customers or rather to those who ought to be your customers. You are missing a heap of good business every day and if you put up the rich argument you could get it. We’ve been trying to help you on the selling end of the game by printing selling talk and selling articles — matter which boosts brick.

In “John Beedle’s Sleigh Ride, Courtship, and Marriage” by Captain William L. McClintock of the U.S. Army and published by C. Wells in New York back in 1841, an amazing story that was actually a collection of anonymous writings published in the Portland Courier over the years, under the pen name of John Neal. Under the section of “Marriage” the following can be found in this book:

Patty Bean was not the first that I run against by a long shot. I never lost any thing for want of asking; and I was plaguy apt to begin to talk turkey always when I got sociable, if it was only out of politeness. Now then one would promise, and then fly off at the handle; but most all contrived some reason or other for giving me the bag to hold.

The Niles Weekly Register, Volume 52 of June 3, 1837 alleges that the Oneida Democrat attributed the phrase to a Native American Indian and told a humorous story that allegedly passed between a white man and a Native American Indian that resulted in the idiom.  This story first appears in print in 1837 but is repeated with multiple variations to the story throughout the 1840s with the story happening in a number of states, and the companion bird sometimes being a crow and sometimes an owl.  Based on this, the story is most likely an urban myth of the time period.

Prior to the publication of Captain McClintock’s story in book form in 1841, the complete story was printed in serialized form in Atkinson’s Casket of 1835, with attribution to the Portland Advertiser newspaper. In fact, in Atkinson’s Casket, Chapter III (where the idiom is used), is introduced in this way:

All who have heretofore read the “Sleigh Ride” and “The Courting” will need no further recommendation of the following, than to be informed that it is from the same gifted pen from the Portland Advertiser.

Since the idiom was used in this story dating back to at least 1835, it is reasonable to peg it to at least 1800 in light of the fact that Idiomation was unable to find an earlier published date for this idiom than the one in the Atkinson’s Casket edition of 1835.

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One Response to “Talking Turkey”

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