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 Doing the best it can, folks.

Dear Word Detective: In my adolescent years in the 1960s, I had a good friend whose father was a poultry expert at Purdue University, and we sometimes stopped by where his father worked and saw flocks of domesticated turkeys. Unlike their wild brethren, these birds seemed to be a pretty stupid lot, and we began to call anyone we thought was a fool or who blindly followed rules a “turkey.” We used the word until it drove my parents to distraction, with phrases like “These turkeys don’t know what they are doing” and “What a turkey that guy is.” Later in my life my father said he thought that our use of “turkey” in this way had become widespread because of our persistent usage through our middle school and high school years. Any chance that we were the originators of this usage of the word? If not, I’d like to know who the turkey was who started it! — Andy Hughes.

So would the Turkey Anti-Defamation League, so I wouldn’t be so quick to claim credit. The good news is that they seem to have their hands full with all the other less-than-laudatory uses of “turkey” lurking out there in popular culture. As a matter of fact, pro-turkey press is so rare that I still remember the brilliant headline the Weekly World News splashed across its front page some years ago, just a few days before Thanksgiving: “Hero Turkey Saves Family of Five.” It was a joke, of course, but I’ll bet it made folks in supermarket checkout lines that week feel a bit guilty.

The story of the noble turkey, which Benjamin Franklin believed should be our national bird (“[T]he Turkey is in Comparison a much more respectable Bird [than the Bald Eagle], and withal a true original Native of America … He is besides, though a little vain & silly, a Bird of Courage….”), begins with a case of mistaken identity. The bird we know as a “turkey” does not come from Turkey (the country), but from Mexico. When Europeans encountered them in America, they mistook them for Guineafowl, which had been exported from West Africa to Europe through Turkey and known as Turkeyfowl.

For a bird that would assume a prominent place in the modern diet, the turkey has been the butt of a number of ungratefully derogatory terms and phrases. The turkey’s slow and ungainly flight made “turkey shoot” a metaphor for a very easily accomplished task or a very lopsided contest, “to walk turkey” in the 19th century meant to strut or swagger, and “gobbledygook,” meaning “pretentious nonsense,” is an imitation of a turkey’s “gobbling” call.

The use of the word “turkey” by itself in a derogatory sense seems to date to the US in the 1920s, when “turkey” first appeared as show business slang for a movie or stage production that flopped (“The boys at the studio have lined up another turkey for us…. I saw the present one the other day and didn’t care much for it,” Groucho Marx, 1939). The logic behind “turkey” in this sense is a bit mysterious, but it may have been a reference to the inept attempts at flight of a domesticated turkey.

However, it also may have come from the 19th century phrase “to talk turkey,” meaning “to speak directly and frankly,” as a producer might when announcing the closing of a show to the cast. “Talk turkey” is said to come from the punchline of an old joke in which a white man counts out the game from a hunt with his Indian companion and keeps all the turkeys for himself, the Indian getting only crows, whereupon the Indian complains that “You only talk crows to me, you never talk turkeys.” The use of “talk turkey” meaning “to face facts and speak the truth directly” is also probably the source of “cold turkey,” meaning to quit an addiction suddenly and completely.

From meaning “a theatrical flop,” turkey went on to a more general use meaning “anything useless or of low quality.” By the 1950s, “turkey” had come into slang usage with the meaning of “a slow, stupid, inept or otherwise useless person” (“So, if you got a collector [of internal revenue] through the civil service system who was a real turkey, you’d be stuck with that turkey practically until he died,” 1951).

Given the fact that “turkey” was widespread by the 1950s, you definitely didn’t coin the common slang term. But your youthful familiarity with turkeys could very well have prompted you to re-invent, on the spot, a slang term you had not yet heard. They are, after all, remarkably stupid birds.


You don’t wanna know what the tree yells.

Dear Word Detective: When a lumberjack chops down a tree, does he yell “Timber!” or “Timbre!”? Either one makes sense: he is creating timber, but he wants to send an alarm that a tree is falling (“timbre” means “bell” or “alarm” in Spanish). — David Towne.

So near and yet so far. I sense that there’s the basis of a good joke in there, but I can’t quite make it out. It would probably work better as the caption of a New Yorker cartoon, anyway, perhaps something about a symphony conductor and a fainting violin section.

The short answer to your question (my ride is honking out front) is that lumberjacks shout “Timber!” to warn anyone in the vicinity that a big tree is on its way down. I suppose that people cutting down trees have shouted some kind of warning for thousands of years, but the cry “Timber!” in particular must be of relatively recent vintage, because the earliest occurrence of this particular use of the word found in print (so far) was in 1912 (“Timber-r-r! the long-drawn melodious warning call of the sawyers in a lumber camp when a tree is about to fall,” Western Canadian Dictionary). “Sawyer,” incidentally, is an old (14th century) word for a worker who saws timber, although in the US it also has been used to mean uprooted trees floating down a river (and posing a hazard to navigation).

“Timber” and “timbre,” despite their resemblance, are, of course, completely separate, unrelated words. We inherited “timber” from Old English, where it had arrived from old Germanic roots carrying the sense of “wooden dwelling,” and in English “timber” originally meant simply “building.” From there it took on the meaning of “building materials” and then simply “wood, logs or lumber,” especially for building structures. Eventually “timber” was also used to mean a large beam in a building or the major structural parts of a wooden ship’s hull (as in the stereotypical old salt’s phrase “Shiver me timbers!”). Along the way, “timber” also came to be used to mean the trees grown for the production of timber (“We continued our journey … through a forest of grand timber,” 1880), which explains the logic of the lumberjack’s warning cry. Simply shouting “Tree!” probably wouldn’t be as effective.

“Timbre” (which is usually pronounced “tam-ber,” although “tim-ber” and “tim-bruh” are also common) means the character or quality of a voice or musical sound produced by its various harmonic overtones; the “color” of a vocal or musical sound. We adopted “timbre” from French in the mid-19th century, where the word had previously meant both “bell” and “sound of a bell,” and, even earlier “small drum.” Back then, a “timbre” or “timbrel” was a small hand-held percussion instrument known today as a “tambourine” (which is itself related to “timbre”). Yet further back, this whole little circus is related to the Greek “tympanon,” which gave us “tympanum,” what we today know as the “kettledrum” in an orchestra.


On the wings of a whim.

Dear Word Detective: What is the origin of “on a lark,” as in “On a lark we went bowling”? — Chris.

“On a lark we went bowling”? Really? Dude, “lark” and “bowling” do not belong in the same sentence. “On a lark we flew to Paris” works. “On a lark I bought a Lamborghini” is believable. “On a lark we eloped and got married at Disney World” would be a credible premise for a romantic comedy. But “on a lark we went bowling” is just weird. Not that there’s anything wrong with bowling, I hasten to add. But for most people, the noble sport of bowling is not synonymous with wild-and-crazy carefree spontaneity. Unless, of course, you’re sitting in a day-long meeting with people you loathe at a job you hate. Then going bowling “on a lark” might be your ticket to a whole new life.

There are actually two “larks” in English (three, if you count the obscure 18th century use of the word to mean “a small boat”). The older “lark” is a small bird (also known as both the “laverock” and the “skylark”) famed for its melodious call and its love of flying at great heights. The name “lark” comes from the Old English “lawerce,” which came in turn from Germanic roots. Oddly, some of the earlier forms of “lark,” especially those found in Old Norse, imply that the original meaning of the word “lark” was related to “treason” in some way. There may be some rationale for this to be found in some folktale somewhere (“The Tale of the Perfidious Lark”?), but so far it’s a mystery and probably nothing to worry about. After all, a batch of the little birdies has been known as “an exaltation of larks” since the 15th century, which certainly beats “a murder of crows” in the avian public-relations department.

The other sort of “lark,” the one meaning “a lighthearted adventure, a spree, an impulsive action,” is of much more recent vintage, first appearing in the 19th century (“My mother … once by way of a lark, invited her to tea,” 1857). A “lark” is a brief but daring departure from routine, a flight of fancy, a bit of forbidden fun or a harmless prank, and “to lark” since the early 18th century has meant “to frolic or play.” The generally positive tone of this “lark” fits well with one theory of its source, namely that it is simply a reference to the light, soaring flight of the “lark” bird. A related verb of the same meaning, “skylarking,” apparently originated aboard sailing ships, and was used to describe crewmen roughhousing in the upper rigging of the ship’s masts, probably by analogy to the soaring flight of actual “skylarks.”

But it’s also possible that “lark” in this “frolic” sense came from a source unrelated to the “lark” bird. Some authorities point to the English dialectical verb “lake” or “laik,” meaning “to leap, play, spring up,” dating back to Old English and derived from Germanic roots. The transition from “lake” to “lark” would, in this theory, be explained by the particularities of pronunciation in southern England, where “r” sounds tend to creep into words lacking the actual letter. Of course, the similarity of the result to the name of the “lark” bird no doubt also played a role in the spread of this “lark.”