Eating crow and talking turkey are venerable American metaphors for different forms of speech, in the first case to consume that most unpleasant of all dishes, one’s own words, and in the second to speak plainly. Both appear to come from nineteenthcentury jokes.
Eating crow was popularized in the presidential election of 1872, when Horace Greeley split from the Republican party, which he had helped found on a national level 16 years before, to run against the incumbent President, Ulysses S. Grant. True Republicans regarded Greeley as a traitor, and diehard Democrats, who had long opposed Greeley’s liberal principles, refused to support him despite their party’s endorsement. Both disparaged Greeley as an unappetizing crow or boiled crow , and the metaphor soon was carried one step further. As reported in the San Diego Daily Union on September 13, 1872, “The chief leader of the Democratic Party of Rhode Island, Hon. Thomas Steever … cannot and will not ‘Eat Crow.’ He prefers Grant to Greeley, and made a speech at Providence recently to that effect.”
The underlying joke has been dated to 1851 but probably was around awhile before that. The earliest example in A Dictionary of Americanisms comes from the San Francisco Picayune of December 1 of that year: “The bet was made, the crow was caught and nicely roasted, but before serving it up, they contrived a reason to season it with a good dose of Scotch snuff. Isaac sat down to the crow, he took a good bit and began to chew away. ‘Yes, I kin eat a crow!… I kin eat a crow, but I ‘ll be darned if I hanker after it!’”
Talking turkey , meanwhile, apparently stems from a joke about a white hunter who tries to outsmart a Native American companion. After spending the day shooting turkeys and crows (or buzzards, in another version), the two hunters meet to divvy up the game. As told in the New York Mirror on July 8, 1830, the white hunter says to the Indian, “You may have your choice, you take the crow and I’ll take the turkey, or if you’d rather, I’ll take the turkey and you take the crow.” The Native American sees through the double-talk, however. “Ugh!” he replies. “You no talk turkey to me a bit.” The phrase became generic for plain speaking within a decade. Thomas C. Haliburton’s Traits of American Humor , published around 1840, includes the line “I was apt to talk turky always when I got sociable, if it was only out of politeness.”
Some old jokes, it seems, are like old soldiers. They never die, they just fade away—until only the punch lines remain.