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The meaning and origin of the expression: Turkeys voting for Christmas

Turkeys voting for Christmas

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What's the meaning of the phrase 'Turkeys voting for Christmas'?

'Turkeys voting for Christmas' is used to describe people acting in a way that is harmful to their own interests.

What's the origin of the phrase 'Turkeys voting for Christmas'?

'Like a turkey voting for Christmas' is a phrase that is archetypically British and isn't widely used elsewhere. There are several reasons for this:

1. The custom in the UK is to serve turkey as the centrepiece of the Christmas meal.

Around 10 million turkeys are eaten at Christmas in the UK and very few at any other time of the year. Any turkey with a vote would be wise to vote against Christmas.

2. The phrase originated in the UK.

The expression was used, in a slightly different form, by the British Prime Minister James Callaghan in a House of Commons debate in March 1979:

"The minority parties have walked into a trap. If they win, there will be a general election. I am told that the current joke going around the House is that it is the first time in recorded history that turkeys have been known to vote for an early Christmas."

Callaghan argued that the minority parties had political influence so long as they agreed to support his Labour adminsitration. That influence would be lost if they voted against him, forced a general election and allowed the opposition, led by Margaret Thatcher, to become the government.

He entertained the crowd but lost the subsequent vote. This withdrawal of the minority parties support from Labour lead to the fall of the Labour government.

Whether Callaghan invented the phrase himself is open to conjecture. There was a report in the Independent Magazine that it was used by another British parliamentarian, David Penhaligon, in 1977. I've not been able to confirm that report. Whether the 1977 report is correct or not, the nature of Callaghan's speech makes it seem likely that he was repeating the witticism rather than coining it.

3. Brexit

Turkeys voting for ChristmasThe expression 'turkeys voting for Christmas' has seen a resurgence in recent years following the vote for the UK to leave the European Union.

Many of those who voted to stay in the EU view the 'leavers' as 'turkeys voting for Christmas'. They see the winning of the 'Brexit' vote to leave as a disaster for the very people who voted for it.

Gary Martin - the author of the website.

By Gary Martin

Gary Martin is a writer and researcher on the origins of phrases and the creator of the Phrase Finder website. Over the past 26 years more than 700 million of his pages have been downloaded by readers. He is one of the most popular and trusted sources of information on phrases and idioms.

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