English speakers started using the word turkey circa 1541, but back then they applied it to the guinea fowl, a domesticated bird imported from Madagascar by way of Turkey. When the American bird we now refer to as turkey was introduced to England in the latter half of the sixteenth century, the Brits mistook it for a variety of guinea fowl not only because it somewhat resembled the other bird but also because the Spanish were using the same Turkish trade routes to export the animals from Mexico to England via Africa. By the time 1575 rolled around, however, the American fowl had become England's most popular main course for Christmas dinner, and it was about then that it also became the sole bird to which the moniker turkey was applied. Much newer are the senses of the word in which it refers to a failed artistic endeavor, such as a play or movie, or to an inept or stupid person. Both first appeared in American English during the early twentieth century, presumably coming about because the turkey was perceived as an unintelligent and rather docile animal. The bird's reputation for stupidity and tractability is also behind the neology of the phrase turkey shoot, which is used in reference to a task that takes little effort to accomplish.
©2013 Michael R. Gates