A plaque remaining from the Big Apple Night Club at West 135th Street and Seventh Avenue in Harlem.

Above, a 1934 plaque from the Big Apple Night Club at West 135th Street and Seventh Avenue in Harlem. Discarded as trash in 2006.

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Entry from March 19, 2009
Talk Turkey (Talking Turkey)

To “talk turkey” originally meant to say pleasant things to the listener. Over the years, however, the term “talk cold turkey”—shortened to “talk turkey”—meant to speak frankly or bluntly, telling the cold, hard factual truth. Two sides in a business contract agree to “talk turkey” (or “get down to business") on a deal.

‘Talk turkey” is first cited in 1824 and was used in the New York City newspapers (such as the New York Evening Post) in the 1830s. According to the often-told story, a Yankee and an Indian both went hunting together, and a turkey and a buzzard were killed. The Yankee tried to pull a “heads I win, tails you lose” trick by stating that the Yankee could have the turkey and the Indian the buzzard—or the Indian could have the buzzard and the Yankee the turkey. The Indian said that the Yankee wasn’t “talking turkey” with him.


World Wide Words
[Q] From Selinda Chiquoine: “I’ve been searching for the origin of talk turkey.”

[A] I’ve found three stories about this, none of them wholly convincing. We do know that it’s a US term. It’s first recorded in 1824, but is probably much older; one suggestion is that it goes back as far as colonial times. What the explanations have in common is real turkeys.

But the meaning of the phrase seems to have shifted down the years. To start with it meant to speak agreeably, or to say pleasant things; nowadays it usually refers to speaking frankly, discussing hard facts, or getting down to serious business. The change seems to have happened because to “talk turkey” was augmented at some point in the nineteenth century to “talk cold turkey”, with the modern meaning. In the course of time it was abbreviated again, with the shorter form keeping the newer meaning. (The other meaning of “cold turkey” is unrelated.)

The most prosaic answer is that the “to talk pleasantly” sense came about through the nature of family conversation around the Thanksgiving dinner table. It is also suggested that it arose because the first contacts between Native Americans and settlers often centred on the supply of wild turkeys, to the extent that Indians were said to have enquired whenever they met a colonist, “you come to talk turkey?”.

The most complicated explanation is a story about a colonist and a native who went hunting, agreeing to share their spoils equally. At the end of the day, the bag was four crows and four turkeys. The colonist tried to partition the spoils by saying “here’s a crow for you” to the Indian, then keeping a turkey to himself, giving another crow to the Indian, and so on. At this point the Indian very reasonably protested, saying “you talk all turkey for you. Only talk crow for Indian”.

Merriam-Webster Dictionary
talk turkey : to speak frankly or bluntly

The Free Dictionary
Verb
talk turkey - discuss frankly, often in a business context

(Oxford English Dictionary)
to say or talk turkey, to talk agreeably or affably, to say pleasant things; now usu. (in this sense also to talk cold turkey) to speak frankly and without reserve; to talk hard facts, get down to business; (no longer restricted to N. Amer.); to talk turkey, to use high-flown language; hence absol. language of this character; not to say (pea-) turkey, to say nothing at all, ‘not to say a word’ (about something); to walk turkey, to strut or swagger; of a ship, to pitch and roll. (See Bartlett Dict. Amer., and Thornton American Glossary.)
1824 Little Bit of Tid-Re-I II. 109 So that, all things considered, I hope neither the Indian, whom the Yankey could not cheat in the division of their game (a turkey and a buzzard,)..will accuse me of not talking Turkey to them in this article.
1846 J. W. ABERT in Congress Documents XXX. 502 The Indian replied, ‘You never once said turkey to me’.
1851 Adv. Capt. Suggs 122 (Thornton) He won’t get a chance to say turkey to a good lookin gall to-day.
a1860 MCCLINTOCK Beedle’s Marriage (Bartlett), I was plaguy apt to talk turkey always when I got sociable, if it was only out of politeness.
1888 San Francisco Weekly Examiner 22 Mar. (Farmer Amer.), The north wind commenced to make the Yaquina walk turkey, standing her up on either end alternately.
1888 Washington Critic (ibid.), ‘What..does locum tenens mean, Tim?’.. ‘Why, that’s turkey for pro tem., of course’.
1903 Dialect Notes II. 333 Talk turkey, v.phr., to talk plainly: ‘I’m going to talk turkey with him and see if I can’t get him to mend his ways.’
1909 Ibid. (U.S.) III. 356 (Thornton) She never said pea-turkey to me about it.
1919 E. HOUGH Sagebrusher xiv. 125 Do you know when he got rattled he began to talk Dutch to me? Well, I talked turkey to him.
1928 Daily Express 4 Jan. 11/5 She talked cold turkey about sex. ‘Cold turkey’ means plain truth in America.
1939 A. HUXLEY After Many a Summer II. x. 279 ‘I’ll make it worth your while,’ he said. ‘You can have anything you care to ask for.’.. ‘Ah,’ said Dr. Obispo, ‘now you’re talking turkey.’
1946 E. HODGINS Mr. Blandings builds his Dream House (1947) xv. 196 The boss painter..wanted to talk turkey about..the final colours.
1967 A. CHRISTIE Endless Night ix. 67 Send for a high powered lawyer and tell him you’re willing to talk turkey. Then he fixes..the amount of alimony.
1982 T. BERGER Reinhart’s Women xix. 270 Maybe I’ll be in a position to talk turkey about an arrangement that would work out for us both.

27 March 1835, Farmers Gazette (MA), “The Marriage of Mrs. John Beedle,” pg. 1:
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 being to talk turkey always when I got sociable, if it was only out of politeness.

6 June 1837, Eastern Argus (ME), pg. 2:
“Talking Turkey.”—The exact signification of this phrase has recently been discussed by some of our contemporaries, and has been finally settled by the Oneida Democrat, which gives an account of its origin. An Indian and a white man went a shooting in partnership, and a wild turkey and a crow were all the result 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 take 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.”

21 June 1837, Age (ME), pg. 2:
“Talking Turkey.”—This phrase, of recent coinage, is applied by the N.Y. Evening Post to the class of men who are in the habit of swelling and boasting, and bragging and threatening. When the stump orators, down in Battle Square, therefore, tell of the rapid increase of their numbers, and assert their readiness to march to the assistance of their brethren, the Boston nullifiers, to batter down the Post Office House, and then march to Washington to knock the President’s eyes out, they “talk Turkey.” [Salem Advertiser.]

8 July 1837, The New-York Mirror: a Weekly Gazette of Literature and the Fine Arts, pg. 16:
TALKING TURKEY.—The exact signification of this colonick phrase has recently been discussed by some of our contemporaries, and has been finally settled by the Oneida Democrat, which gives an account of its origin. An Indian and a white man went a shooting partnership, and a wild turkey and a crow were all the result of the day’s toil. The white man in his 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 take 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.”

Google Books
Dictionary of Americanisms
By John Russell Bartlett
Fourth Edition
Boston, MA: Little, Brown, and Company
1877
Pg. 691:
To talk Turkey. To say pleasant things; to talk so as to please the hearer.

The story is an old one, — that an Indian and a white man, after a day’s hunting, had only a turkey and a partridge to show for game. The white man proposed to divide them, and said to the Indian, “Take your choice. You can have the partridge, and I’ll take the turkey, or I’ll take the turkey, and you may have the partridge.” “Ugh!” said the Indian, “you don’t talk turkey to me any.”

The “New Haven Register,” May, 1864, speaking of some fellows out West, who, under pretence of buying turkeys for the soldiers, got them cheap, and sold them in Eastern markets at a high figure, says: --

“They are not the only ones who talk turkey, and rob the soldiers of what is contributed for their benefit.”

“Polly Bean was not the first girl I run against, by a long shot; and I was plaguy apt to talk turkey always when I got sociable, if it was only out of politeness.”—McClintock, Beedle’s Marriage.

Google Books
Let’s Talk Turkey:
adventures and recipes of the White Turkey Inn

By Frieda Meredith Dietz
Published by Dietz Press
1948

Google Books
Let’s Talk Turkey
By Willie Snow Ethridge
Published by Vanguard Press
1952

Google Books
The Know-Nothings Talk Turkey
By Michele Sobel Spirn
Illustrated by Robert W. Alley
Edition: reprint, illustrated
New York, NY: HarperCollins
2001

Google Books
Talk Turkey to Me:
A Good Time in the Kitchen Talking Turkey and All the Trimmings

By Renee S. Ferguson
Published by Talk Turkey to Me
2006

Posted by Barry Popik
New York CityFood/Drink • (1) Comments • Thursday, March 19, 2009 • Permalink


I always used to think ‘talking turkey’ meant that you were talking nonsense, like a garbled turkey call! Some excellent articles on here, loved reading about quite a few items. WTG Barry!

Posted by Locum Doctor  on  08/20  at  09:13 AM

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