Oxford Dictionary of Modern Slang (edited by John Ayto, John Simpson) lists the following slang words used for Irish people:

bog-trotter, harp, Mick, Paddy, Pat, turk, turkey

I can guess why these terms are associated with Irish people except turk and turkey. (bog-trotter can be analyzed further though.)

  • bog-trotter: because there are many bogs in Ireland
  • harp: symbol of Ireland, popular instrument in Ireland
  • Mick, Paddy, Pat: (derived from) popular names in Ireland
  • turk, turkey: [seriously?]

On the other hand, the racial slur database doesn't include turk and turkey among many slang words.

I did some research and found an article on word-detective.com that explains possible origins. First theory is related to the stupidity of turkey bird, second theory is related to the uncivilized behavior of a person ("Turk" from US slang) and third theory is related to the derivation of the Irish word "torc".

  • As to why an Irish-born person resident in another country would be known as a "turkey" or "turkey bird," the crystal ball gets a bit cloudy. This term seems to be largely heard in the US, where "turkey" has long been slang, in reference to the bird's legendary stupidity, for something (or someone) of little value, so there's a possibility that it is simply another derogatory sense of this slang "turkey."

  • More likely, however, is the possibility that "turkey" in this sense is a development of "Turk," a native of Turkey, which has long been used in a derogatory slang sense in many contexts to mean a person lacking "civilized" qualities. "Turk" has been used in the US as slang for a person of Irish birth or descent since at least 1914, while the form "turkey" in the same sense is first found in the 1930s.

  • Yet another possibility, bypassing Turkey entirely, is that "turk" and "turkey" in this sense is derived from the Irish word "torc," meaning "hog or boar."

Furthermore, there is a new study claims that Irishmen descended from Turkish farmers which might be related:

A new study has revealed that many Irish men may be able to trace their roots back to Turkey. Focusing on the role of the Y chromosome, which is passed from father to son, the research indicates Turkish farmers arrived in Ireland about 6,000 years ago, bringing agriculture with them. And they may have been more attractive than the hunter-gatherers whom they replaced. [irishcentral.com]


In the light of the those findings, is it possible to trace back this usage to find a more definitive answer?

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    Whilst I have lived in Britain all of my life (apart from 5 years working for British companies overseas), have had numerous Irish friends and acquaintances, have visited Ireland several times, and am a great fan of the Irish, I have never heard Turk or Turkey used to describe Irish people. – WS2 Feb 14 '15 at 21:27
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    It seems like it is only used in US slang then. – ermanen Feb 14 '15 at 21:36
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    @WS2 ditto per me, and bog-trotter is a new one for me, but at least it's easy to understand. FYI: Paddy and Pat are diminutives for Patrick; and Saint Patrick is the patron saint of Ireland. And paddy is also indicative of how some Irish pronounce their ts – Mari-Lou A Feb 14 '15 at 21:44
  • Euphemistic deliberate mispronunciation of 3rd. Like shark, shoot, shuck, what the f...fish. – Blessed Geek Feb 15 '15 at 8:15
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    I grew up in Acton w London in the fifties we had a lot of young Irish lads usually outside the snooker hall we always called them turks – user213428 Jan 3 '17 at 14:40
up vote 9 down vote accepted

'Turk' in reference books

J.S. Farmer & W.E. Henley, Slang and Its Analogues (1904) has a fairly lengthy entry for turk:

TURK, subs. (old).—1. a sword [other old slang terms for "sword" cited by Farmer & Henley include andrew, fox, and toledo (or tol)]. 1638. Albino and Bellama, 108. That he forthwith unsheath'd his trusty turke, Cald forth that blood which in his veines did lurk.

2. (old).—A savage fellow ; 'a cruel, hard-hearted man' (B. E. and Grose); a TARTAR (q.v.). Also, TO TURN TURK=to turn renegade, to change for the worse, to GO OFF (q.v.). ... In modern usage Turk has lost somewhat of its rigorous meaning, and is frequently employed as a half-jesting endearment to mischievous, destructive boy : e.g., 'You young Turk!" [Citations omitted.]

3. (old).—A target : a dummy made up of cloth and rags.

Perhaps the most interesting thing about this entry—aside from its mention of the usage of "young Turk" just four years before the Young Turk Revolution in Turkey—is its silence with regard to any connection between turk and Irish Americans.

Also free of any reference to Irish people is Joseph Wright, The English Dialect Dictionary (1905):

TURK, sb. ... 1, A violent, savage man ; a cruel taskmaster. [Citations omitted.] 2. A tiresome, mischievous child. [Citations omitted.] 3. Used as an intensive for anything big or formidable of its kind. [Citations omitted.]

Harold Wentworth & Stuart Flexner, Dictionary of American Slang (1960), however, does note the association of turk with people of Irish ethnicity:

Turk [or] turk n. 1 A strong man; a large, strong, energetic, overbearing man; a man quickly aroused to anger; a stubborn man, one hard to deal with. Orig. applied mainly to and used by the Irish and people of Irish descent. Now fairly common; often a nickname given to a prize fighter. From the Gaelic "torc" = a wild boar. ...

On the other hand, Eric Partridge, A Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English, fifth edition (1961) asserts that turks in connection with the Irish is a feature of (fairly recent) Teddy boy slang:

Turks. The Irish : Teddy boys' [slang] : since ca. 1949. (The Observer, March 1, 1959.)


Three pitchers named Turk

When I was young, one of the stars of my home-town baseball team, the Houston Colt .45s, was a right-handed starting pitcher from Boston named Dick Farrell, who was known as a fun-loving, hard-partying person, but with a somewhat hot temper. His nickname was Turk—and according to an article about him posted on the Society for American Baseball Research website, his father was known as Big Turk. I don't know whether the father's Irish ethnicity had anything to do with that nickname, but he may have been Big Turk by the 1930s (Dick Farrell was born in 1934).

Aside from that rather tenuous connection, I have never heard an Irish or Irish-American person referred to as "Turk" or "a turk," and the usage may be obsolete or nearly so in the United States. Another pitcher, though from a generation later, Turk Wendell (born in Pittsfield, Massachusetts in 1967), is said (in his SABR biography) to have acquired his nickname as follows:

Turk got his nickname at the age of 3. By one account, the little boy repeatedly jumped face first from a window into a mound of snow made by his grandfather. The man said, “That was something only a Turk would do.” In 1991 Wendell himself clarified: “My grandfather nicknamed me after one of his buddies because I was always doing stupid, rebellious things.” “He wrecked everything in no time at all,” said his father. “He always thought he was indestructible. He always has been a daredevil.”

A third baseball pitcher, Turk Lown, who was born in Brooklyn, New York, in 1924, "got his nickname as a child because of his fondness for eating turkey," according to a Wikipedia article about him. Neither Wendell nor Lown is an Irish surname.

The most likely sources for the term turk as applied to an Irish or Irish-American person, I think, are Turk (a native of Turkey) as a byword for someone savage (an expression of bigotry that was probably several centuries in the making), and torc (the intemperate and unmanageable Gaelic wild boar). I seriously doubt that turkey (the North American bird) has anything to do with the usage.


UPDATE (2/3/2017): Early newspaper mentions of 'Irish Turks'

The earliest instance that I've been able to find of Turk as a direct insult term (that is, as a fighting word) for an Irish person is from "Can He Be Trusted with a Club: Policeman McCullough Gets into a Quarrel with Two Women," in the [New York] Sun (July 2, 1888):

Policeman Patrick McCullough of the Charles street station charged Mary Walsh of West Houston and Hudson streets at Jefferson Market Court yesterday morning with disorderly conduct In Hudson street on Saturday night, and with calling him a "big Irish Turk," He also accused Bernard Cahill and Francis Reilly, young neighbors of Mrs. Walsh, of interfering when he arrested her.

Mrs. Walsh accused McCullough of insulting her daughter, Mrs. Louisa Stanberry, and of clubbing her when she rebuked him. Mrs. Stanberry said she called the policeman's attention to the fact that two men had beaten a third in front of her home. He did not find the assailants, and, returning, he said to her:

"You little tar, you ought to mind your own business."

Her husband and mother spoke up for her and the policeman hit her mother and knocked her down.

Cahill said that McCullough had his club lifted to strike Mrs. Walsh, when he caught hold of the club and prevented the blow. Then McCullough clubbed him. His head was done up in bandages.

Reilly said that he went to Cahill's rescue.

Mrs. Walsh said that McCullough used her so roughly that he broke a diamond ring from her finger, and she showed the broken band. McCullough's story was that "the gang tried to do him up," and that Mrs. Walsh fell down. Justice Gorman discharged Mrs. Walsh and Cahill and fined Reilly $5. Mrs. Walsh paid his fine. McCullough was tried by the Commissioners lately for beating a citizen.

This story is interesting, in part, because the surnames of those mentioned suggest that everyone involved may have been of Irish descent.

More-ambiguous instances of "Irish Turk" in newspaper accounts go back to the 1840s. From "City Intelligence," in the New York Herald (June 9, 1842):

A BIGAMIST WITH THREE WIVES AND THREE ALIASES—A man whose real name, he says, is Patrick Casgran, of 74 Allen street, was committed at the Upper Police yesterday, charged by Michael McCarran, of 26 James street, with the crime of bigamy. On the 13th of November, 1841, he was married by the name of Patrick McClusker to Julia Henson, the sister of his deceased wife, by the Rev. James McDough, of St. James's Church, in this city. Taking a notion into his head, as he says, that the marriage with his wife's sister was illegal, on account of relationship, he left her and on the 26th of February, 1842, was married to Mary Ann Lorman by the Rev. M. A. Stillwell, under the name of Patrick McCasgrove alias McCasker. These circumstances being confirmed by the affidavit of Mr. McCarran, the Turk as locked up for trial.

If the decision of the late Presbyterian Synod of Philadelphia is correct "that it is incest for a man to marry the sister of his deceased wife," the defence of the Irish Turk will stand good before a jury.

Here it appears that Turk is being used as a slang term for "bigamist" and that Irish Turk is simply a juxtaposition of the defendant's ethnicity with his presumed marital status. But "Irish Turk" appears in a somewhat similar context 22 years later. From "Broadway Below the Sidewalk," in the New York Clipper (April 23, 1864):

Everybody has read of old Bluebeard with his plurality of wives, and most people are opposed to his summary method of doing things. Bluebeard was an Irish Turk, and not a Turkish Turk, which may account for his not over eleemosynary propensities. But Bluebeard's style wouldn't suit Gotham, because our folks are proverbial for the kindly manner with which they treat the gentler sex on all occasions, and woman-beaters have no more show than the elder Law had when he ran for President.

Other nineteenth-century instances involve music-hall entertainments that seemingly focus on Irish characters. From an advertisement in the New York Clipper (September 10, 1881):

MARCHING SONGS.—“The Killarney Musketeers,” “The Petticoat Brigade,” SONGS AND DANCES—“Rose perfumed Bouquet,” “The Two Irish Turks,” “Where the Sweetest Flowers Grow,” “Where Pretty Lilacs Grow,” “Pretty Little Lou,” “Sunny Days,” “Little Roguish Eyes,” “Pretty Little Dandelion,” “Pretty Irish Queen,” “Sweeter Than a Red Ripe Peach.” EMERALD ISLE GEMS—“Bright Little Spot on the Ocean,” “Erin’s Green Isle,” “Sons of Erin’s Isle,” “A Dear Spot of Land,” “Picking up Gold in the Street.” ... 27c. each. Any 4 for S1. Lieder’s Publishing house, 61 Chatham Street, N. Y.

From "Thespian Temples," in the Leadville [Colorado] Daily Herald (January 8, 1882):

Paddy Hughes will introduce one of his best specialties, entitled, Dremni Drhue and the Irish Turk. Mr. Hughes is a first-class artist, and a genial favorite.

From an advertisement for the Alhambra Music Hall, in the Sydney [New South Wales] Morning Herald (August 20, 1888):

Serio Comic—"It's English you know"—Miss LETTIE LWYNE and TA TA TRA LA LA LA.

The Australian Team, DELOWERY, GRAYDON, and HOLLAND as the IRISH TURKS.

Comic—"Right before the Missus" and "Captain, Call the Mate"—Mr. HARRY HASTINGS.

To conclude with the Cottiers' Laughable Farce, THE AMERICANS IN PARIS.

Delowery, Graydon, and Holland continued to perform this act for more than a decade, as we see from an advertisement in the Perth Western Australian from February 12, 1898, promoting "DELOHERY. CRAYDON, and HOLLANE In one of their funniest and best Irish character sketches, 'Irish Turks.'"


Conclusions

The association of "Turk" with Irish people goes back well into the nineteenth century—with "big Irish Turk" unmistakably intended as an insult in an incident reported in 1888. The very early occurrences (from 1842 and 1864) of "Irish Turk" in connection with a person who has multiple wives is intriguing, but not unmistakably a set phrase. Instances of "Irish Turks" as stock characters in popular entertainments occur in both the United States and Australia by 1888.

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    For what it's worth, I've never heard of such a thing either. – tchrist Feb 26 '15 at 5:03
  • Amazing answer as always! Thanks Sven Yargs. – ermanen Feb 27 '15 at 9:17
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    Green's Dictionary of Slang, gives two 19th century usages of Turk for Irish, the earliest from 1871 with a Galveston, TX provenance. (Note the Texas State Historical Association says Galveston nonetheless surged ahead and ranked as the largest Texas city in 1870 with 13,818 people and also in 1880 with 22,248 people. It had the first structure to use electric lighting, the Galveston Pavilion; the first telephone; and the first baseball game in the state.) Green's marks the usage, overall, as "US." – Knotell Jan 5 '17 at 4:32

The full (subscription-only) OED has...

Turk 4b: slang (usu. depreciative).
A person of Irish birth or descent. Chiefly U.S.
In this sense perh. a derivative of Irish torc boar, hog, as suggested by W. A. McLaughlin
but cf. turkey 6b.

Turkey 6b: U.S. slang
= Turk 4b; spec. an Irish immigrant in the U.S.

I've never once come across this usage in the UK that I remember. OED have this sense of Turk first recorded in 1914, and Turkey in 1932, so it's not all that old.

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    I'm with @LittleEva on this: as a native AmE speaker, I've never encountered either "Turk" or "Turkey" meaning "Irishman". If I read or heard that word, I'd immediately assume it referred to a person from the country of Turkey, and if I later found out it was meant to indicate an Irishman, I'd be completely flummoxed. – Dan Bron Feb 14 '15 at 23:15
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    The connection with Irish torc seems (without having access to W.A. McLaughlin’s arguments) rather a stretch to me. Boars do not have the same connotations in Irish as they do in English: boorishness and uncouthness are not the traits a person described as a torc or (diminutively) torcán is associated with. When referring to people, torc(án) means ‘portly, corpulent’, and if there's anything the majority of the (dirt poor!) Irish in the US weren't generally in 1914, it's corpulent. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Feb 15 '15 at 0:31
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    I must not be old enough: I've never heard this either! – tchrist Feb 26 '15 at 5:04
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    Torc is also Gaelic for a big solid man - teanglann.ie/en/fgb/torc – Baz Apr 14 '15 at 18:43
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    I think this is a hyper-local thing. I can say for a fact and from personal experience people use this term in some parts of Irish Boston. – picus Aug 24 '16 at 18:03

As an American 3/4 Irish who grew up in an all Irish-American neighborhood in Chicago (Canaryville), I was told 2 things about the term:

  1. Don't call someone off the boat from Ireland a Turkey if you don't want a fight.
  2. The term turkey or turkey bird derived from the way the Irish spoke.

Try saying "top o' the mornin'" in an exaggerated Irish accent and it will remind you of a turkeys "gobble'.

I am an irish-american from Dorchester, MA - some parts are very heavily Irish and to this day have many fresh Irish immigrants.

In my neighborhood, Turkey was/is definitely used to describe Irish guys ) - typically Irish guys who may be from more rural areas like Connemara.

The thing is, most people where I grew up were Irish, and i don't mean their grandmother was part Irish - I mean you'd go into their house and both the parents or all the grandparents, if they weren't still in Ireland, had a brogue. This didn't stop them from using the word Turkey.

I never knew why specifically this word was used, but the original story I heard was that the Gaelic speakers would come off the boat and ask for pork - saying torc and they'd get Turkey instead, they'd get flustered and mad thinking they were getting short-changed, which led to them being viewed as hot tempered idiots. Alternatively, another story I heard was similar in that they would ask for pork and be given turkey (or vice versa, which ever would constitute a ripoff), and because they grew up so destitute in Ireland, subsisting on potatoes and occasionally mutton, they wouldn't know the difference.

Kind of lame, and it seems like a very specific thing to focus on (of course this is a epithet that has been passed down a few generations, so who knows) but that is what I heard.

I think it may be a term that was reserved for Rural Irish/Gaelic speakers more than the Irish from say Dublin, but that is just me speculating. I can't speak to its level of insult.

protected by Community Apr 9 '17 at 2:56

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