Here are a couple of questions I've been saving for just the right occasion -- like Thursday:
Why do we say we "talk turkey" when we talk seriously about a matter? -- Sid Morgan, of O'Fallon
It does seem odd, considering that "turkey" usually carries a connotation more synonymous with a dodo than your wise old owl. Why not talk eagle or falcon or something more majestic?
All word experts can do is offer their best guesses, so, hopefully without running afowl of your sensibilities, here they are:
In general, it is supposed that American pioneers may have noticed that turkeys were a sociable bird that gathered in large flocks. Wild male turkeys may even be seen courting in groups.
Perhaps the constant squabble of gobbles produced by a flock of birds reminded colonists of human conversation heard from afar. As a result, talking turkey in the 1800s first meant simply to "chat pleasantly." It produced the old expression to "not say turkey (or pea-turkey)," meaning not to say anything.
But over the past 100 years, the expression has taken on a weightier definition in which two or more people talk bluntly about serious matters. This may -- or may not -- have arisen from this fanciful tale first told in the early 1800s (or even before):
An Indian and a white man went hunting together one day and shot several birds, including a number of turkeys. When they went to divvy up their spoils at the end, the white man always managed to keep the larger, meatier turkeys for himself while the Indian's pile contained the smaller, bonier birds.
Incensed, the Indian said something like, "You talk all turkey for you. You never once talk turkey for me. Now I talk turkey to you!"
It left that white man eating some crow and us with a well-worn figure of speech.
Where and when did the tradition of pulling apart the wishbone originate? -- W.P., of Swansea
Ah, yes, the ceremonial fracturing of the furcula. That's the scientific name of the V-shaped bone that is often a highlight of the Turkey Day dinner. (Use it in a conversation Thursday to impress your future in-laws.)
In nature, it is formed by the fusing of the bird's two clavicles -- what we call the collarbones in humans. While the bird is living, its reinforces the skeleton to withstand the rigors of flight. But once it's on the table, it becomes a bone of contention as diners try to avoid yanking off the smallest piece and thereby not having their wish granted. (Well, them's the breaks sometimes.)
Here's what I found after boning up on the subject: Legend has it that the superstition arose some 2,400 years ago among a people you may have never heard of -- the Etruscans, who lived on the Italian peninsula. They regarded fowl as fortunetellers because the hen would squawk before laying an egg and the rooster foretold the dawning of the day with his crows.
Supposedly the Etruscans also would draw a circle on the ground and divide it into 20 wedges, one for each letter of their alphabet. After placing a piece of grain in each wedge, the priests would note the order in which the bird ate each morsel/letter and issue a prophecy from that.
Perhaps because of its unique shape, the Etruscans regarded the furcula as sacred and came to believe that anyone even stroking the bone would have a wish granted. As the story goes, the Romans picked up the practice, but, being a rowdier bunch, they fought over the bones and broke them, which led to the modern superstition.
The silly custom spread throughout Europe. According to Edward A. Armstrong in his "The Folklore of Birds," a Dr. Hartlieb, a Bavarian physician, wrote in 1455:
"When the goose has been eaten on St. Martin's Day, the oldest and most sagacious keeps the breastbone and, allowing it to dry until the morning, examines it. Thereby they divine whether the winter will be severe or mild, dry or wet, and are so confident in their prediction that they will wager their goods and chattels on its accuracy."
Eventually, English ancestors took the tradition from the Romans but began calling the bone a "merry-thought," which described the wish most people hoped for. Naturally, the practice came along to the New World, where the plentiful wild turkeys with their large wishbones quickly put the smaller chicken and duck furculas to shame.
Hope you have a happy Thanksgiving -- no bones about it.
How did the bird many of us eat today come to be called a "turkey"?
Answer to Wednesday's trivia: Since the new National Football League overtime rules went into effect in 1974, only Memorial Stadium in Baltimore has witnessed two tie games -- and they were by different home teams! On Dec. 19, 1982, Green Bay and the Baltimore Colts battled to a 20-20 stalemate. Then, on Nov. 16, 1997, Philadelphia and the Baltimore Ravens knotted 10-10. In St. Louis, the Cardinals and Giants played to a 20-20 tie on Oct. 24, 1983, at Busch, the first of two ties for the Big Red.
Send your questions to Roger Schlueter, Belleville News-Democrat, 120 S. Illinois St., P.O. Box 427, Belleville, IL 62222-0427 or firstname.lastname@example.org