Fast & Curious: Short Takes on Random Things

Talking Turkey

I learned recently that in Scottish Gaelic, a turkey is a “cearc-fhrangach” or a French chicken. (Chicken is “cearc,” France is “An Fhraing.”)

Turkeys, as you no doubt know, are native to the eastern part of North America, not France, so why did my ancestors think they were French?

One possible explanation, put forward by the First Edition Translations blog, is that Scottish people “speculated” the birds were from France just as “in 16th-century England, when turkeys were introduced to Europe, they were (incorrectly) thought to belong to the group of guineafowls, some of which came from Turkey. Hence the name, turkey!” (Writing on the same subject on the American Heritage website, Richard H. Hopper says the guineafowl were from Africa, so this was doubly wrong.)

The Twitter account Scots Gaelic for (@ScotsGaelicfor) offers a slightly different theory:

This makes sense to me, but I would have to see a few more examples of exotic things being described as “French” in Gaelic before I signed on.

As it turns out, nobody in Europe seemed to know where turkeys were from, according to the translation blog cited above:

In many languages the bird is actually called “the Indian chicken” as many assumed it came from the Indian subcontinent. The reason for this might be that some of the imported turkeys reached Europe with the help of Indian traders. The French call it “la dinde”, the Russian refer to it as “индейка” [indeyka] and the Turkish (ha!) also call this bird by a name that references India, “hindi”.

In some languages even the city where these birds supposedly came from is identified. In Dutch, it is “kalkoen”, in Finnish it is called “kalkkuna” and the Icelandic word is “kalkúnn”. These all stem from the name of Calicut, a city in India.

According to Hopper, the notion that turkeys came from Calcutta originated in Germany (an early German term for Turkey was “Kalekuttisch Hün”). The Portuguese, Croats and Pakistanis thought turkeys came from Peru; the Vietnamese call it the “Western chicken” (“gà tây”), the Bretons call it a Spanish chicken (“yar-Spagn”) and Malaysians call it a Dutch chicken (“ayam belanda”).

Male wild turkey

A male wild turkey (Meleagris gallopavo) strutting at Deer Island Open Space Preserve near Novato, Marin County, California. (© Frank Schulenburg / CC BY-SA 4.0 )

And there’s more, according to the blog:

If you want to know the full story, there are languages in which the name for this bird does not have anything to do with countries or places. Notable mentions are the Japanese “seven-faced bird” (七面鳥 – “shichimenchou”), “fire chicken” (火鸡 – “huoji”) in Mandarin Chinese and “sky chicken” (வான்கோழி – “vaan kozhi”) in Tamil.

The Spanish “lump the turkey with the peacock” and call both “pavo” or “pavon,” according to Hopper, which surely opens the door to some Spanish potentate at some point having accidentally ordered a bunch of ornamental turkeys for his lawn. (I wrote that before I found the above picture of a wild turkey which suggests they actually are quite ornamental, in a kind of jolie-laide way.)

The Scots term for a turkey is a “bubbly-jock.”

Hopper, on the American Heritage site, answers the obvious question about turkeys, namely, what did the people native to North America call them?

Since the wild turkey was used for food by many American Indian tribes and domesticated by the Aztecs at least five hundred years ago, it is worth seeing what the American Indians called their largest bird—the bird Benjamin Franklin proposed for the United States national winged symbol, only to be turned down because it was felt the turkey lacked the dignity of the bald eagle. Here is the word for turkey in the languages of several eastern tribes: Powhatan (Virginia): monanow; Delaware: tshikenum; Algonkian (Long Island): nahiam; Narragansett (southern New England): nahenan; Natick and Wampanoag (Massachusetts): neyhom; Abnaki (Maine): nahame; Iroquois (upper New York): netachrochwa gatschinale.

The online Mi’kmaq Dictionary tells me the Mi’kmaq word for turkey is “ap’tapegiejit.”

Hopper then asks the next obvious question, which is why the English settlers at Plymouth colony, who had adopted Wampanoag words like “moose, raccoon, opossum, coyote, peccary, and jaguar,” persisted in “calling a neyhom by the outlandish name turkey?” His explanation is that by 1620, when the first Thanksgiving feast took place, they would have been so familiar with turkeys that it would never have occurred to them to change that name.

All of which, to me, adds up to a brilliant subject for discussion at those American Thanksgiving dinners where political and religious debates apparently blow the roofs off houses: talk turkey. The notion of the turkey as the country’s national symbol alone ought to keep people entertained through a course or two, everyone is sure to have an opinion. I have one and I’m Canadian—I wish they’d opted for the turkey because they’d never again be able to laugh at the beaver.


The Nostalgia Cycle

I was watching a YouTube video the other day. I realize that in 2022, that’s sort of like saying, “I was breathing some oxygen the other day” but my consumption of YouTube has been highly idiosyncratic—I use it for instructional videos and old television clips and the odd TV show or movie but I’ve largely avoided YouTubers. I tend to prefer podcasts for commentary. I like being able to listen while I do other things, like housework or gardening or yoga. (I don’t actually recommend this last combination, though. I’ve done it when I have limited time but I find the two work at cross purposes, the yoga relaxes me while the podcasts gets me riled up about something.)

Recently, though, I’ve been broadening my YouTube horizons which is how I came to be watching a video in which the YouTuber was waxing nostalgic for the way she used to dress in…2007.

This baffled me on a couple of fronts. First, because I still wear some of my clothes from 2007. (Czech apartments didn’t come with clothes dryers and I lived in Czech apartments for 14 years so got used to using a clothing rack and now that I live in a house, I use the rack in winter and live the dream in spring/summer with a clothesline. The point is, clothes tend to last longer when you don’t put them in the dryer.) Also, I’m so not in tune with fashion trends it’s like I’ve been inoculated against them.

Happy Days cast

Cast of Happy Days (Anson Williams is at the very back)

But what really puzzled me about the YouTuber’s take was that someone could be nostalgic for fashions from 15 years ago. I got curious about the usual amount of time that passes before nostalgia kicks in and, as is my wont on a Friday, did some additional “research” into the subject and discovered this time period is actually the subject of some debate. Here’s how Forrest Wickman summarized that debate in Slate in 2012 (when Mad Men was the retro entertainment du jour):

In the latest issue of the New Yorker, Adam Gopnik tries to explain the popularity of Mad Men by announcing “the Golden 40-Year Rule.” “The prime site of nostalgia is always whatever happened, or is thought to have happened, in the decade between 40 and 50 years past,” he proclaims. As it happens, it was just over a week ago that Entertainment Weekly declared that “it typically takes about 12-15 years for the nostalgia life cycle to kick into effect.” Last fall, when the 20th anniversary of Nirvana’s Nevermind was widely observed in the press, music critic Carl Wilson was one of many writers who claimed that nostalgia runs on a “20-year cycle of resuscitation.” Kurt Andersen, meanwhile, commenting on the seeming omnipresence of nostalgia in American culture, suggested that we are at the mercy of “historical pendulum swings … that tend to last, according to historians, about 30 years.”

Wickman isn’t buying it, accusing Gopnik of “cherry picking” examples to bolster his case for a 40-year gap, arguing instead that:

American popular culture is too multifarious and inconstant to admit of such a simple explanation. Sometimes a show comes along that persuasively romanticizes the 1960s; sometimes an anniversary or two shines a light on music from 20 years ago most of us still love. But these flashpoints don’t follow any one pattern. Some cultural phenomena can’t be explained away by simple rules.

Which may be true, but doesn’t stop people from trying: this WIRED article from 2021 argues not only that there is a nostalgia cycle but that it has stalled in the 1990s, a situation it attributes to a collective longing for life pre-9/11.

Retro Chart

The Onion’s “retro chart.”

The whole thing reminded me of this Onion article from 2004: “U.S. Dept. of Retro Warns: ‘We May Be Running Out of Past,’” in which US Retro Secretary Anson Williams (better known as Potsie Webber from Happy Days, the “popular, ’50s-nostalgia-themed 1970s sitcom”) expressed his concern that:

…the U.S.’s exponentially decreasing retro gap is in danger of achieving parity with real-time historical events early in the next century, creating what leading retro experts call a “futurified recursion loop,” or “retro-present warp,” in the world of American pop-cultural kitsch appreciation.

Such a warp, Williams said, was never a danger in the past due to the longtime, standard two-decade-minimum retro waiting period. “However, the mid-’80s deregulation of retro under the Reagan Administration eliminated that safeguard,” he explained, “leaving us to face the threat of retro-ironic appreciation being applied to present or even future events.”

“We are talking about a potentially devastating crisis situation in which our society will express nostalgia for events which have yet to occur,” Williams told reporters.

Merriam-Webster has just informed me that the term “nostalgia” was “coined to refer to an unwanted medical condition” by Swiss physician Johannes Hofer (1669-1752) who thought homesickness in Swiss mercenary soldiers was a “mania” rather than a rational response to being a Swiss mercenary soldier. It wasn’t until the “end of the 19th century” that this meaning fell out of favor and our modern understanding of nostalgia as “a longing for something from the past or far away” began to take hold.

Merriam-Webster doesn’t tackle the issue of how far past something must be before one may become nostalgic for it, so I’m afraid this item must end inconclusively.