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Cold Turkey

Polly want a sweater?

Dear Word Detective: I am trying to find a definitive answer for my 7th grade health students on the popular term “cold turkey.” How did quitting an addictive substance suddenly, without any help, lead to this phrase? — Mrs. McRae’s 2nd period health class.

Oh boy, health class. We didn’t have health class when I went to school, which probably explains a lot of my subsequent behavior. We did have shop class, where I learned how to perforate myself with a drill press and developed a lifelong fear of power tools. And we had gym class, where I learned how to climb a rope suspended from the ceiling, a skill that I was, at age 12, convinced would serve me well in later life. I’m still waiting. Unfortunately, life has turned out to be a lot more like dodgeball than rope-climbing.

“Cold turkey” is, as you say, a slang term for suddenly quitting an addictive substance (or, by extension, any habit or pattern of behavior), with no tapering off or substitution of a milder alternative. Although the phrase is today part of the general public lexicon and is applied to even minor inconveniences (“My Blackberry died, so I went cold turkey all afternoon”), “cold turkey” was originally a term known only to the underworld of hard drug addicts and those, such as the police, who had regular contact with them.

“Cold turkey” first appeared in print (as far as we know) in the 1920s, but since such terms are often in use for years or decades before a journalist notes them, it may actually be much older. Interestingly, “cold turkey,” as used among addicts hooked on heroin, morphine or similar drugs, referred to more than just the act of quitting suddenly. “Cold turkey” also meant the often extremely painful physical and mental symptoms of sudden and complete withdrawal from the drugs, “withdrawal sickness” so severe that it could actually cause death.

The origin of “cold turkey” is not entirely certain, but the phrase seems to have evolved from the older (19th century) classic American idiom “to talk turkey,” meaning “to speak directly and frankly, without beating around the bush.” There are a number of stories about the origin of “talk turkey,” many of which involve Pilgrims and Indians, and all of which strike me as deeply implausible. But, more importantly for our purposes, an early form of the phrase was “to talk cold turkey,” most likely using “cold turkey,” a simple, uncomplicated meal, as a metaphor for simple, unadorned, direct speech. With “talk cold turkey” already a popular idiom meaning “give it to me straight; tell me the unvarnished truth,” it seems natural that “cold turkey” came to mean “quit suddenly, with no tapering off or equivocation.”

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