TRIVIAL PURSUITS: What Is the Origin of the Phrase ‘Cold Turkey?’

When someone quits something abruptly, we say they quit “cold turkey.”

What is the origin of the phrase “cold turkey?”

 

Often now the phrase is used in relation to quitting something addictive, such as hard drugs or cigarettes. According to Merriam Webster, the theory was described by the San Francisco Chronicle columnist Herb Caen in 1978: “It derives from the hideous combination of goose pimples and what William Burroughs calls ‘the cold burn’ that addicts suffer as they kick the habit.” In “Cop Speak: The Lingo of Law Enforcement and Crime,” Tom Philbin recites a second theory, that “the term may derive from the cold, clammy feel of the skin during withdrawal, like a turkey that has been refrigerated.”

 

However, the phrase was used in different ways earlier on. In a cartoon that appeared in newspapers on November 12, 1920, ace slangman Thomas “TAD” Dorgan used cold turkey this way: “Now tell me on the square—can I get by with this for the wedding—don’t string me—tell me cold turkey.” The editors of the Historical Dictionary of American Slang have found an earlier use: a 1910 usage where the speaker lost $5,000 cold turkey, in the sense of losing it outright.

 

Merriam Webster speculates 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.
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