Oh, those poor Mayans had no idea that European settlers would have no interest in what the locals called their wildlife.
The Mayans didn’t actually have a campaign to call the native Mexican bird (known today as the Turkey- Meleagris Gallopavo) ‘the Maya’, but they are thought to have been the first to domesticate it, about two thousand years ago. Bones recently identified in a pyramid complex indicate domestication by the Maya civilization nearly a thousand years earlier than previously thought. Whether they used these large odd looking birds as sacrificial offerings or just snacked on them during feasts is debatable (although, c’mon, they ate them), but one thing is certain, they didn’t get a lick of credit for it on the world stage (and neither did Mexico). Actually ‘Mexico’ would be the most accurate place of origin name for the Turkey, as all domestic Turkeys come from the Wild Turkey native to Mexico.
The Turkey is referred to by different exotic origin names in other languages as well probably due to old school ignorance, or as I prefer to believe, plain old negligent disregard. Actually ‘Turkey’ only really shows up in English, it’s overwhelmingly referred to as a bird of Indian origin in Armenian, Catalan, Danish, Estonian, Norwegian, Swedish, Finnish, Papiamento, French, Hebrew, Indonesian, Maltese, Polish, and Turkish. Other references of interest include The Russian Indeyka which relate it to the Native American Indian, and Portuguese, Hawaiian and Hindi which make reference to Peru (closer). The winners of conjuring exotic interest in deli meat however goes to the Japanese (and Korean) references to the Turkey as ‘the seven faced bird’. Kudos to them for noticing, to me they all kinda look the same.*
So how then, did English end up with ‘the Turkey’? Well, Turkey (the country)**, back in the day, somehow*** managed to corner the market on all things ‘exotic’. For the British, everything from the ‘other side’ of the Danube was labeled ‘Turkey (product)’. Basically it looks like the Brits determined item names on trade routes like this:
‘Persian rugs’ you say? I don’t think so, I’m running a business here. How’s about ‘Turkey Rugs’!
‘Indian flour’? Obviously you’re new to Jazzvertising. Say hello to ‘Turkey Flour’.
‘Hungarian Bags’? Shut-the-front-door! They’re ‘Turkey Bags’.
‘Guinea fowl’? Merchant, I will smack you. It’s ‘Turkey Cock’.
Guinea Fowls and proper Turkeys were both referred to as Turkey cocks, eventually shortened to just Turkeys. New World colonists would have been familiar with them so when they saw Wild Turkeys in the Americas they were all ‘Hey check it out, native Turkeys in America”. Apparently at the time, no one thought that was an odd thing to say.
The rest is standard inaccurate-cultural-phraseology history.
*I might just be fowl-racist.
**technically the Ottoman Empire at the time.
***This ‘somehow’ is actually not a mystery. It can be found in textbooks under ‘Throttling the Silk road: the very deliberate conquest of Constantinople in 1453′.
BONUS: In such discussions it often comes up that Ol’ Benjamin Franklin thought the Turkey was better suited as the national bird of the US than the Bald Eagle (this notion comes from a letter of criticism of the Society of Cincinnati). In what can only be described as anthropomorphism gone berserk LolFranklin bestows Theory of Mind to hawk and fowl thusly:
“Others object to the Bald Eagle, as looking too much like a Dindon, or Turkey. For my own part I wish the Bald Eagle had not been chosen the Representative of our Country. He is a Bird of bad moral Character. He does not get his Living honestly. You may have seen him perched on some dead Tree near the River, where, too lazy to fish for himself, he watches the Labour of the Fishing Hawk; and when that diligent Bird has at length taken a Fish, and is bearing it to his Nest for the Support of his Mate and young Ones, the Bald Eagle pursues him and takes it from him.
With all this Injustice, he is never in good Case but like those among Men who live by Sharping & Robbing he is generally poor and often very lousy. Besides he is a rank Coward: The little King Bird not bigger than a Sparrow attacks him boldly and drives him out of the District. He is therefore by no means a proper Emblem for the brave and honest Cincinnati of America who have driven all the King birds from our Country…
I am on this account not displeased that the Figure is not known as a Bald Eagle, but looks more like a Turkey. For in Truth the Turkey is in Comparison a much more respectable Bird, and withal a true original Native of America… He is besides, though a little vain & silly, a Bird of Courage, and would not hesitate to attack a Grenadier of the British Guards who should presume to invade his Farm Yard with a red Coat on.”
Comic Note: Although Turkey (and not the poor Mayans) ended up as the name for the Bird, they do not hold it in any form of esteem. Everybody lost that round. History does what it wants.