Historically Speaking

Making sense of it all!

Cold Turkey

Posted by Elyse Bruce on December 20, 2013

When you quit something point blank instead of tapering off or cutting down gradually, you’ve gone cold turkey. Although some claim it relates to walking away from an addiction, the term applies to many other activities that are stopped immediately. In some cases, it also means to speak frankly, and in yet other cases, it has nothing to do with being frank or quitting a behavior.

In 2006, Brian Snowdon and Howard R. Vane wrote and published a book entitled, “An Encyclopedia of Macroeconimics.” On page 135, the following definition for cold turkey is given:

A rapid and permanent reduction in the rate of monetary growth aimed at reducing the rate of inflation.

The idea of cold turkey referring to economics isn’t new. When Sweder van Wijnbergen wrote his book “Should Price Reform Proceed Gradually Or In A Big Bang?” he included the idiom on page 26 where he wrote in part:

Thus cold turkey programs will unambiguously be more credible than gradual programs that actually cause increasing shortages in their initial phase: and even if gradual programs do not cause increasing shortages, cold turkey decontrol program will still be more credible.

In Mickey Spillane’s book “The Deep” published in 1961 the following exchange can be read:

“Easy, kid. You could have been part of a setup. The word goes out to stay clear of Bennett’s place during a certain time … or if you get clear to make a call to let somebody know … and then blooie, Bennett catches it and you’re clean. Almost.”

He didn’t like that last word.

“The cops figure like that and tie it in and you’ll be doing the turkey act downtown. Cold turkey. Think you could take it?”

“Deep … jeez! Look, you know I wouldn’t … hell, Bennett and me, we was friends. You know, friends!” He was perched on the very edge of the bed shaking like a scared bird.

Later on in the book, he author wrote:

I grinned nastily so Pedro could see it. “Nothing special. I just put our buddy in the path of law and order. He’s a junkie, so I dropped a few days’ poppilng [sic] in his pocket with the gimmicks and if he gets picked up he goes cold turkey downtown. In five minutes a cop’ll walk in here and off this laddie goes. Unless he talks, of course. In that case he can even keep what’s in his pocket.

In fact, in the book, by Vincent Joseph Monteleone entitled, “Criminal Slang: The Vernalucar of the Underground Lingo” published in 1945 and reprinted in 1949, he states that cold turkey means a number of things including:

1. to speak frankly;
2. to be arrested with the loot in one’s possession; and
3. to quit using drugs without tapering off or without drugs to relieve the withdrawal.

Going back to 1928 and the magazine “The Author & Journalist” the idiom is used on page 28 in an article by Alan Streeter entitled, “Putting ‘Cold Turkey‘ Into Writing.” Alan Streeter wrote:

… in getting stories by the “cold turkey” method. [The writer] must be able to ascertain the general standing of the merchant or the store about which the article is to be written.

Oddly enough, in a book by Theodore Roosevelt published in 1888, and again in 1904, and entitled “Ranch Life and the Hunting Trail: An Account Of Life In The Cattle Country Of The Far West” he wrote of a gentleman known as Cold Turkey Bill in Chapter VI entitled, “Frontier Types.” In this chapter he wrote:

He was victorious over the first two or three eminent citizens whom he encountered, and then tackled a gentleman known as “Cold Turkey Bill.” Under ordinary circumstances, Cold Turkey, though an able-bodied man was no mater for The Pike; but the latter was still rather drunk, and moreover was wearied by his previous combats. So Cold Turkey got him down, lay on him, choked him by the throat with one hand, and began pounding his face with a triangular rock held in the other. To the onlookers the fate of the battle seemed decided; but Cold Turkey better appreciated the endurance of his adversary, and it soon appeared that he sympathized with the traditional hunter who, having caught a wildcat, earnestly besought a comrade to help him let it go.

No explanation is proffered in the book explaining how Cold Turkey Bill got his nickname. That being said, it was in August 1915 that the following was printed in the Oakland Tribune:

This letter talks cold turkey. It gets down to brass.

Even back in 1915, cold turkey meant to speak frankly without any gradual minimizing of words to get to the subject at hand. Unfortunately, Idiomation was unable to find an earlier published version of cold turkey, and since it was used so eloquently in 1915, it’s reasonable to peg this idiom to the previous generation. In other words, it most likely was an expression that came out of the 1880s, and quite possibly from the expression talk turkey.

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One Response to “Cold Turkey”

  1. […] Joseph Monteleone (18 December 1883 – 18 November 1959) wrote in “Criminal Slang: The Vernacular of the Underground Lingo” published in 1945 (and […]

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