Senior managing editor and logophile Andy Hollandbeck reveals the sometimes surprising roots of common English words and phrases. Remember: Etymology tells us where a word comes from, but not what it means today.
While a perfectly roasted turkey can be a beautiful sight on Thanksgiving, there’s little argument that turkeys themselves, when they’re still alive, can be quite ugly. Their heads — covered with wrinkled flesh, bulbous protuberances, and weird dangly bits — look as if someone forgot to put skin on them.
But the fun part of all that odd avian anatomy is that each of those things on a turkey’s head has a name that’s fun to use and fun to say. This week, for Thanksgiving, we’ll break down those bits that make a turkey’s head so distinctive.
Along the top of the base of a turkey’s beak, a sac-like fleshy protuberance grows. As the turkey ages, it gets larger or longer and can dangle down below the beak. This is called the turkey’s snood. Both male (toms) and female (hens) turkeys have a snood, but it’s more prominent on males. What’s more, during mating season, blood rushes to the toms’ snoods, turning them bright red — a color that is apparently attractive to hens.
Turkey’s aren’t the only things that have snoods; your grandmother might have one, too.
The word snood traces to the Old English snod, meaning “a ribbon for the hair,” which in turn comes from a proto-Germanic root that meant “string or cord.” During the Middle Ages, women — and especially young, unmarried women — would tie their hair up in the back with a snood, presumably into something similar to a ponytail.
Over time, women not only tied their hair up but, in some situations, placed some netting or a thin bag over the hair as well. By the 1930s, snood referred specifically to this type of bag or hair net that enwrapped a woman’s ponytail at the back of her head.
Now imagine that a woman’s snood wasn’t dangling at the back of her head but at the front; now imagine it’s not a woman but a turkey. Enough people made this visual connection that snood came to be applied to this feature of a turkey’s face.
Fans of the late-’90s TV series Ally McBeal will remember that Richard Fish (played by Greg Germann) was obsessed with women’s wattles. Like a snood, a wattle is something your grandmother might have, though this time it’s the same for turkeys and people. Wattle is the loose flesh that hangs below a mouth or beak.
The term is usually applied to birds — chickens and some pheasants have wattles, too — but, as you can see, the meaning has expanded into the human realm to describe loose flesh under someone’s chin.
It’s unclear where the word wattle came from. It can also be called a dewlap, from the Old English lappe “loose piece,” though where the dew part comes from is unclear.
A caruncle is a naked fleshy outgrowth or protuberance. Technically, a wattle is a type of caruncle, but a turkey can have much more caruncle than just the wattle.
The word caruncle traces to the Latin word caruncula, a diminutive of caro “meat” — which is also the source of carnivore and carnival. It came through the French caruncule to become, by the early 17th century, the English caruncle.
Caruncle also has a usage within the human world, but it’s medical and can be uncomfortable to talk about. Suffice it to say, while it’s fine for your grandmother to wear a snood and have a wattle, if she’s got a caruncle, she might want to have a doctor look at it.
If you’ve ever wondered why the bird associated with Thanksgiving bears the same name as a country in Asia Minor, I explored that history several years ago in “A Tale of Two Turkeys.”
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