Daunting tasks “r” us.
Dear Word Detective: In reading The Poe Shadow, a historical novel concerning an investigation of the mysterious death of Edgar Poe, the author Matthew Pearl uses the expression “poor as Job’s turkey.” The setting of the novel is 1851 Baltimore. Is Pearl using an expression of the time? Although I’ve read some of the Bible, the Book of Job is overly long; therefore I have not read it. Can you date and explain the reference? — Clete Delvaux, De Pere, Wisconsin.
Good question. Incidentally, why is it that you never run into people with the same last names as truly famous writers? Have you ever met a Poe? A Thackeray? Even a Mailer or a Vidal? Anyone out there know a Tiffany Yeats, a Larry Keats or a Billy Bob Longfellow? Am I the only one who finds this odd?
Onward. In answer to your first question, yes, “poor as Job’s turkey” was indeed a common expression in the mid-19th century, indicating that Mr. Pearl took his research seriously, which is nice to see. There’s nothing worse than shelling out twenty-five dollars for a historical novel and being rewarded with Thomas Jefferson declaring, “As IF, dude.”
Summarizing the Book of Job in one paragraph is a daunting task, but here goes. A righteous and prosperous man, Job has his faith tested by Satan (with God’s permission) and endures all manner of torment, including the loss of his children, his livelihood and his physical health. But Job keeps the faith, and eventually his humility and perseverance in the face of terrible adversity is rewarded.
Whether past centuries were more intrinsically religious than modern times is debatable (somewhere else), but it is indisputable that in 19th century America the Bible played a much more central role in popular culture than it does today. Thus common figures of speech frequently referenced Biblical figures, as in “Adam’s ale” (water) and “Adam’s occupation” (gardening). Since the notable characteristics of the story of Job were his suffering, poverty and endurance, it was common to hear references to “the patience of Job” (“You would provoke the patience of Job,” 1749) or of someone being “poor as Job” (“He’s poor as Job, and not so patient,” 1822).
But human nature can’t resist the urge to embellish, and by the 19th century Americans (especially in the Midwest) were jocularly enhancing these sayings. If Job was poor, his cat (not mentioned in the Bible, of course) must have been even poorer (“I should rather be as poor as Job’s cat all the days of my life,” 1854), and that cat must have been rich as Croesus compared to Job’s poor turkey (“But laws! Don’t I remember when he was poorer nor Job’s turkey!”, 1871).
Job, of course, not only never owned a turkey, but would never have known they existed, since the bird we call a “turkey” is actually native to Mexico. But as a figure of speech that adds a smidgen of silliness to a venerable Bible reference, “poor as Job’s turkey” does the job.