Monday, December 10, 2007

Apple #286: Cold Turkey

I recently ran across this expression, to quit something cold turkey. Usually people use this phrase in reference to quitting cigarettes or alcohol or some other kind of drug, and they mean that you stop using it suddenly, all at once.

But all of a sudden, the phrase seemed strange to me. Why turkey? And why is the turkey cold? And what do turkeys have to do with quitting anything?

"Cold turkey" does not mean, literally, a chilly turkey.
(Painting by Ron Parvu, Cold Turkey, 1998, on view at the Saginaw Art Museum)

  • There are lots of ideas about the origins of this phrase.
  • One page says that when you quit some sort of drug immediately, you get the cold sweats, which gives you goose bumps, and that's where the phrase comes from. But that slang dictionary is not very reputable, and I suspect that Ted Duckworth, who wrote it, didn't do all his research -- at least, not on this phrase.
  • Wikipedia's entry (and multiple sites that link back to it or simply copy it verbatim) say that "cold turkey" is a variation on the phrase "talk turkey," which means that you speak without lying or indirection of any kind. When you go cold turkey, then, you're no longer messing around with those drugs that set you wandering off course. And when you do that, you go through withdrawal, so you get the cold sweats and goose bumps as in plucked turkey flesh.

Wikipedia, I think on this occasion, you're a turkey.

  • As one person noted at the Word Reference forum, that connection between the appearance of goose bumps and the appearance of a plucked turkey's flesh seems much too serendipitous to be believed.
  • And actually, my copy of the OED (Oxford English Dictionary) says that to "talk turkey" means to say lots of affable, high-flown things. Or, to spin a story that's probably got some flattery in it besides. This is just about as opposite as it gets to Wikipedia's definition of talking turkey.

Sort of what my copy of the OED looks like. Except I bought mine from the Book of the Month club back in the late 1980s for $30.
(Photo from the Oxford English Dictionary)

  • The Online Etymology Dictionary's definition of "talking turkey" is closer to the OED's than it is to Wikipedia's. They say that that phrase probably comes from a long, extended joke told in 1824 about an Indian who got swindled. So, according to the Etymology Dictionary, talking turkey means talking hogwash. Which I think is what those other definitions of "cold turkey" are doing.
  • So here's what the Online Etymology Dictionary says is the definition of cold turkey: If you've served turkey but it's still cold, you haven't given it very much preparation. So doing something "cold turkey" similarly means you've done it with little preparation.

If all you've done is lay out cold slices of this, you haven't done very much.
(Photo from Koch's Turkey)

  • Furthermore, the Etymology Dictionary says that the phrase was first used in 1910. But by 1921, the phrase was further specified to mean quitting an addictive substance -- and in that original usage, heroin.
  • None of those other sources offer an initial use of the phrase. And the Online Etymology Dictionary is written and compiled by Douglas Harper, a much-published historian who does his work and then some when it comes to historical topics he cares about, as opposed to other definitions that have been written by just anybody whose credentials are unknown. So I'm putting my money on his definition.

I wish, though, that somebody could tell me why turkey as opposed to, oh, chicken or beef or sausage. But I suppose it's the same reason why people picked mutton when they made up the phrase, "she's a regular cold shoulder of mutton." Just because.

By the way, in addition to this entry, I also updated my entry (Apple #5!) on Handel's Messiah with more information on that score. (Pun-of-the-day brought to you by the Apple Lady)

Definitions I trust:
Online Etymology Dictionary, cold turkey and talk turkey
Short Stories Help Children, The etymology of common phrases means what it means!, English language forum, Cold turkey

Definitions I don't trust:
Wikipedia, cold turkey
Answerbag, "How did the phrase "(to quit) cold turkey" originate?"
Yahoo! Answers, I know what it means to quit "cold turkey," but why is it called that?
You Q and A, Why is it called cold turkey when you are in withdrawal?


  1. You should ask these interesting and random questions over at People are pretty witty over there, even if they don't know the right answer!


  2. Thanks for the suggestion, Dara, but I think I'll stick with the Daily Apple.

  3. I asked myself the very same question but unfortuntately none of the etymology defitions I've found could explain what the turkey has to do something with quitting all of a sudden... I'd go with the bold-typed one of your post.
    Thanks for sharign

  4. Yup. That's why I put it in boldface. Glad we're both leaning in the same direction.

  5. I think, on no authority but my own wild guess, that it must be related to getting goosebumps and shivering while going through withdrawal, both properties that might well be possessed by a cold turkey.


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