We just received this question on Ask Figaro:
What does “turn turkey” mean, and what are its origins?
To turn turkey means to switch sides. This idiom is almost certainly a corruption of the phrase “to turn Turk.” Back in the 16th and early 17th centuries, “Turk” was a common English name for a Moslem. A Christian who converted to Islam “turned Turk.” (Shakespeare’s Hamlet worries that his fortunes might “turn Turk with me.”)
Figaro has sometimes heard “turn Turkey” in the context of retreating in a cowardly fashion. As he writes, he looks out onto a meadow with a flock of wild turkeys. He can tell when someone is approaching his writing cabin, because the turkeys will turn and hightail it out of there.
The White House would say that withdrawing from Iraq would be turning turkey. But what if one stayed and converted to Islam? Would that be a turkey done to a turn?
Figaro is getting dizzy.
Do cool things with cliches and idioms! Turn to page 213 of Figaro’s book.