Where Does the Phrase “Cold Turkey” Come From?

Ever heard of quitting something “cold turkey”? It’s a common expression used to describe abruptly stopping a habit or addiction, often with unpleasant withdrawal symptoms But have you ever wondered where this peculiar phrase originated? Let’s dive into the fascinating history of “cold turkey” and uncover its surprising roots

Tracing the Origins: A Journey Through Time

Our journey begins in the bustling streets of 18th and 19th century America. “Talking turkey” back then meant being straightforward and honest, i.e., cutting through the filler and getting right to the point. This expression originated from a previous one called “talking turkey,” which meant to speak falsely, much like the expression “flapping your gums” might be used today.

A humorous anecdote from 1837 sheds light on the origins of “talking turkey. According to legend, an Indian and a white man went hunting and caught a crow and a wild turkey. In his crafty manner, the white man presented the Indian with an option: either take the crow and he would take the turkey, or vice versa. The Indian considered the “kind” offer for a moment before answering, “Yuck! You don’t talk turkey to me.” “.

According to this anecdote, the term “talking turkey” was first used to refer to dishonest or superficial discussions. But by the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the expression had a different connotation and was now associated with open and honest communication.

From Talking to Quitting: The Evolution of “Cold Turkey”

So, how did “talking turkey” morph into “quitting cold turkey”? The answer lies in the early 20th century when the phrase “cold turkey” first appeared in print alongside the qualifier “cold” to emphasize this straightforward approach to communication.

Here are a few examples:

  • 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.”

These examples illustrate how “cold turkey” became associated with no-nonsense, direct communication. People are said to have coined this expression to characterize the sudden withdrawal from hard drugs like heroin and morphine. Since moderation can be difficult for people in recovery, giving up the drug abruptly and completely meant not tapering down.

Theories and Speculations: Unraveling the Mystery

Though its precise origin is still unknown, there are a few theories that try to explain how “quitting cold turkey” relates to the real bird. Some people think the phrase was inspired by the stiff, cold, and skinned turkey flesh, which is comparable to the physical symptoms of withdrawal. This etymology is unlikely, though, given historical evidence that the term was used outside of the context of drug addiction.

Another theory proposes that “cold turkey” originated from the practice of administering cold turkey broth to patients undergoing opiate withdrawal. While this theory is intriguing, there’s no concrete evidence to support it.

The Takeaway: A Legacy of Straight Talk and Recovery

Regardless of its exact origins, “cold turkey” has become a widely recognized expression for abruptly quitting a habit or addiction. It serves as a reminder of the challenges and complexities associated with overcoming dependence, emphasizing the importance of seeking professional help and support during the recovery process.

So, the next time you hear someone say they’re quitting cold turkey, you’ll know that this phrase carries a rich history, evolving from a way of talking frankly to a symbol of determination and resilience in the face of addiction.

Go Cold Turkey Meaning – Idiom Examples and Origin


What does the idiom cold turkey mean?

To “go cold turkey” is to withdraw suddenly and completely from an addictive substance or some other form of dependency: “Many people who attempt to quit smoking do so by going cold turkey rather than by gradually cutting down.”

What is going cold turkey?

“Cold turkey” is a quick-fix method to quitting tobacco, alcohol, or drugs. Rather than gradually tapering off the substance, you stop taking it immediately. The term comes from the goosebumps people sometimes get in the days after they quit, which look like the skin of a “cold turkey” in the fridge.

What is the expression with cold turkey?

Example Sentences. He had been trying to quit smoking since a year but couldn’t, so he decided to go cold turkey. When drug addicts go cold turkey they experience a period of extreme suffering. He went cold turkey on his drinking habit two years ago and hasn’t had a drink since.

What does it mean to leave someone cold turkey?

: abrupt complete cessation of the use of an addictive drug. also : the symptoms experienced by a person undergoing withdrawal from a drug. 2. : unrelieved blunt language or procedure.

What is the origin of cold turkey?

The most likely origin of “cold turkey” is that it’s an evolution of the expression “talk turkey” or “talk cold turkey,” meaning to tell someone something straight and be completely honest. It could be a classic case of a figurative expression spawning another figurative expression. There are a couple more literal explanations, too.

What is a cold turkey idiom?

Basically, anything cold turkey means giving up or stopping something abruptly, usually a bad habit of some kind. Now, pardon me, I’m going to go make a cold turkey sandwich! Be sure to have a look at my other idiom guides to find other phrases to broaden your vocabulary!

What is the difference between a cold turkey and a talk turkey?

It may be that the original cold turkey was a combination of cold (“straightforward, matter-of-fact”) and the earlier talk turkey, which dates back to the early 1800s and refers to speaking plainly.

Why do people say quit cold turkey?

Ever quit something cold turkey and wonder why you’ve quit it in such a manner? On the serious side, the phrase is often used when the quitting brings physical symptoms of withdrawal, as with heroin or other highly addictive drugs.

Leave a Comment