‘Turkey’ remains my favorite example of the importance of context in language. No matter how good your grammar and vocabulary, no matter how perfect your tones – you may still have problems. The year I lived in Xiamen, I had grandiose visions of hosting a Thanksgiving dinner true to Thanksgiving’s intercultural-sharing-of-food roots. I wanted to buy a turkey and have one of my favorite Chinese restaurants prepare it. Kung-pao turkey, perhaps? Curkey (turkey + curry)? I was up for anything.
When I was met with confusion, I thought I was pronouncing it wrong. Instead I discovered that turkey (火鸡) and lighter (火机) are pronounced exactly the same (hǔojī). (It may have also been complicated by the fact that turkeys are native to North America and far from common in China. But the language thing didn’t help.)
Anyway, as I’ve told this story before, what I really wanted to touch on is the word ‘turkey’. I read an interesting article on Slate today, “What’s the Word for Turkey in Turkish?”. (Very interesting, and I encourage you to look at it.) They list the word for ‘turkey’ in many different languages, including Abkhazian, Nahuatl, Icelandic, Armenian, Malay, and Lithuanian – but not China!
So here you go: the Chinese word for ‘turkey’ is 火鸡, or “fire bird”. Not totally sure why, but when we draw them we do always depict them with fire-like colors, right?
(The wikipedia article they link to says 七面鸡, or ‘7 faced bird’ is another term, but a quick survey of the six Chinese speakers we had over for Friendsgiving today showed no basis for that.)