Where Does the Term 'Cold Turkey' Come From?

Maybe it's goosebumps and not a literal turkey in the cold that inspired the expression. (Photo: Tom Reichner/Shutterstock)

One genre of trivia that has always interested me is the origins of phrases and idioms. I have several books on the origins of phrases or literary allusions from my teaching days because when something came up that I was unfamiliar with, I wanted to know what it meant or where it came from.

I've always been curious about "cold turkey." I know that it means to give up something abruptly and completely, but I didn't know the idiom's origin. What does a turkey have to do with withdrawal symptoms when you quit smoking or totally shut down Facebook during Lent?

The answer isn't in any of my books.

word origin reference books
This collection of reference books about word and phrase origins has answered most of my questions throughout the years. (Photo: Robin Shreeves)

If the books don't have the answer, certainly the internet must have it, right?

Well, sort of. It doesn't have just one answer; it has many. There are many theories as to where "cold turkey" comes from, but no proven origin.

Merriam-Webster says the first known use of the expression as we use it today — to describe withdrawal — is found in the British Columbia newspaper the Daily Columnist in 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.

But, the term was used a year before that in a 1920 cartoon.

Now tell me on the square – can I get by with this for the wedding – don't string me – tell me cold turkey.

And, a decade before that, it appeared when someone had gambled and said he lost "$5,000 cold turkey" because he was cheated.

The first uses of the term didn't have to do with withdrawal from addiction, but they did have to do with being abrupt.

This makes some theories about the origin of the idiom problematic.

Origin theories

A common theory that arises has to do with the look of turkey flesh. Someone who is experiencing withdrawal symptoms gets cold, clammy flesh and goosebumps, therefore their skin resembles the skin of a plucked turkey. But the term's first uses weren't associated with addiction, so that doesn't seem to be the origin of the phrase.

Another common theory is that it has to do with the quickness in which a meal made with cold turkey can be put together since there's no cooking involved. This theory, according to Snopes, says that cold turkey is a "a metaphor for something done speedily and decisively." This one seems unrealistic because there are foods that can be put together more quickly than cold turkey. Going "cold cereal" would certainly be more apt, though it doesn't have the same ring to it.

The most plausible theory, according to Know Your Phrase is that it's a variation of another turkey idiom we use — "talking turkey" or "talking cold turkey." That phrase means to speak plainly, bluntly and getting directly to the point without any nonsense. So, talking cold turkey means to get to the point abruptly and going cold turkey means to quit whatever you're addicted to abruptly.

The next question

But that of course leads to another question. Where does "talking turkey" come from? We're left still wondering what a turkey has to do with any of this.

Mental Floss might have the answer. The origin may go back to when Native Americans and European colonists traded fowl. They would literally talk about turkeys.

That could be one hint. And I may just have to accept that I'll just never know for sure where "cold turkey" really came from.