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The meaning and origin of the expression: Cold turkey

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Cold turkey

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Meaning

The sudden and complete withdrawal from an addictive substance and/or the physiological effects of such a withdrawal. Also, predominantly in the U.S.A., plain speaking.

Origin

At this time of year, [January 2012] you have probably had enough of cold turkey. Nevertheless, here's another plateful.

The term 'cold turkey' is now predominantly used as the name of the drug withdrawal process. Also, by extension, it is used to refer to any abrupt termination of something we are accustomed to. To find the origin of the term we need to delve into the annals of American speech. Let's talk turkey.

Cold turkeyThe turkey looms large in the American psyche because of its link to early European colonists and is, as even Limies like me know, the centrepiece of the annual Thanksgiving meal. In the USA, and as far as I can tell nowhere else, 'plain speaking/getting down to business' is called 'talking cold turkey', which has been shortened in present day speech to just 'talking turkey'. This usage dates from the early part of the 20th century, as in this example from The 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 English newspaper The Daily Express introduced the phrase to an English audience in a January 1928 edition:

"She talked cold turkey about sex. 'Cold turkey' means plain truth in America."

'Talking cold turkey' meant no nonsense talking and its partner expression 'going cold turkey' meant no nonsense doing. To 'go cold turkey' was to get straight to the scene of the action - in at the deep end.

What the turkey had to do with plain speaking, we just don't know. There are a few suggestions but none come supported with any evidence and are no more likely to explain the source of the expression any better than ones you could imagine for yourself - better just to admit, we just don't know.

The earliest reference to 'cold turkey' in relation to drug withdrawal that I can find is from the Canadian newspaper The Daily Colonist, October 1921:

"Perhaps the most pitiful figures who have appeared before Dr. Carleton Simon are those who voluntarily surrender themselves. When they go before him, they [drug addicts] are given what is called the 'cold turkey' treatment."

In the state of drug withdrawal the addict's blood is directed to the internal organs, leaving the skin white and with goose bumps. It has been suggested that this is what is alluded to by 'cold turkey'. There's no evidence to support that view. For the source of 'cold turkey' we need look no further than the direct, no nonsense approach indicated by the earlier 'in at the deep end' meaning of the term.

See other phrases that were coined in the USA.