If you’ve ever quit a habit or discussed someone else quitting, you’re likely familiar with the phrase cold turkey. Whether your vice is Netflix binges, oreo cramming, or cigarettes, to quit them cold turkey means to swear off them completely, no ifs, ands, or buts. With New Year’s behind us, the phrase may be cropping up more and more. But where does it come from?
Its origins can be traced back to 18th and 19th century America. Historical accounts seem to indicate that the phrase “talking turkey” meant to talk disingenuously, similar to the way “flapping your gums” is used now.
A folkish retelling of the origins of the phrase first appeared in an 1837 article from the Niles’ Weekly Register:
“An Indian and a white man went shooting in partnership and a wild turkey and a crow were all the results of the day's toil. The white man, in the usual style of making a bargain with the Indian proposed a division of the spoils in this way: "Now Wampum, you may have your choice: you take the crow, and I'll take the turkey; or, if you'd rather, I'll take the turkey and you take the crow." Wampum reflected a moment on the generous alternative thus offered, and replied – "Ugh! You no talk turkey to me."
Based on this and other appearances, “talking turkey” seems to have been a euphemism for deceitful or otherwise superficial, pleasant talk. However, by the end of the 19th century and early 20th century, the phrase inexplicably changed meanings, becoming more synonymous with talking frankly and directly.
To “talk turkey” became associated with getting down to brass tacks, discussing the meat of the matter at hand, and disregarding the sides and stuffing of polite conversation. In the early 20th century, the phrase first appeared in print along with the qualifier “cold” to indicate this kind of straightforward way of communicating.
The Des Moines Daily News, May 1914:
“I've heard [Reverend Billy] Sunday give his 'Booze' sermon, and believe me that rascal can make tears flow out of a stone. And furthermore he talks "cold turkey". You know what I mean - calls a spade a spade.”
The Daily Colonist, British Columbia, 1921:
"Perhaps the most pitiful figures who have appeared before Dr. Carleton Simon ... are those who voluntarily surrender themselves. When they go before him, that are given what is called the 'cold turkey' treatment."
The Daily Express, UK, January 1928:
"She talked cold turkey about sex. 'Cold turkey' means plain truth in America."
So while there is no exact instance where “quitting cold turkey” came to enter the cultural lexicon, we do know that by the 20th century, the phrase “cold turkey” had come to mean no frills, no fanfare, and straight to the point.
Individuals may have adopted the phrase as a way of describing the process of suddenly quitting hard drugs such as heroin and morphine. Individuals in recovery can struggle with moderation, so the approach of quitting something cold turkey means to dispense with any tapering and withdraw completely from the substance of choice.
So there you have it! The origins of the phrase cold turkey. The original cold turkey was a combination of cold ("straightforward, matter-of-fact") and the modified phrase “talk turkey”, referring to speaking plainly.
What’s interesting is that some individuals believe the phrase draws from comparisons between the cold, clammy, and rigid flesh of a skinned turkey with that of the cold, clammy, and rigid skin of a person going through withdrawal. The gooseflesh textures are similar, but historically speaking the term was first used outside of drug addiction implications, so this etymology would be incorrect.
Withdrawing from drugs or alcohol can be a dangerous and even deadly prospect. If you are concerned about a substance abuse problem and wish to help yourself or a loved one get sober, it is recommended that you consult with a medical professional or enlist the assistance of a certified detox and rehabilitation center.
At Landmark Recovery, we pride ourselves on offering leading, evidence-based treatment for those suffering from any kind of substance use disorder. Visit our website to learn more about drug and alcohol rehab options such as residential treatment and intensive outpatient.