It started with an ad that materialized on my screen for no apparent reason.
“With CHANTIX, you can keep smoking at first and ease into quitting.”
I don’t smoke, hadn’t been searching for anything cigarette-related, and—whoa, what was that goggle-eyed bird doing in a smoking-cessation ad?
“That image,” I replied, “will haunt me.”
Right? A turkey. Holding a pack of cigarettes in its wing. Did it take up smoking because of the daily stress of fearing imminent beheading? Or did it hear that people enjoy smoked turkey, and misunderstand?— Dr. Bethan Tovey-Walsh (@LinguaCelta) May 12, 2020
And then there was that slow turkey line. Is that even a thing?
Short answer: No. Slow turkey is not a thing unless you’re cooking turkey in a slow cooker. Chantix made it up.
Cold turkey, thought, is definitely a thing—it signifies “quitting suddenly.” But why and whence?
Merriam-Webster has looked into it and discovered that the phrase first appeared in print in 1921, in the Daily Colonist in British Columbia: “Perhaps the most pitiful figures who have appeared before Dr. Carleton Simon ... are those who voluntarily surrender themselves. When they go before him, that are given what is called the ‘cold turkey’ treatment.” In a 1978 column, the San Francisco Chronicle’s Herb Caen suggested an etymology: “It derives from the hideous combination of goosepimples [sic] and what William Burroughs calls ‘the cold burn’ that addicts suffer as they kick the habit.”
Nice try, but Merriam-Webster notes that earlier uses of cold turkey had nothing to do with drugs or gooseflesh. “Tell me cold turkey” meant “give it to me straight” in 1920, if not earlier. A 1910 citation in the Historical Dictionary of American Slang has someone losing $5,000 “cold turkey,” meaning he lost it outright.
The dictionary’s editors conclude:
It may be that the original cold turkey was a combination of cold (“straightforward, matter-of-fact” and the earlier talk turkey, which dates back to the early 1800s and refers to speaking plainly. Regardless of its ultimate origins, the phrase manages to vividly capture the initial dread and discomfort that comes from immediately quitting something that's addictive, from drugs to dating apps.
Back to Chantix, which is made by pharma giant Pfizer and sold, by prescription, in tablet form. According to Verywell Mind, a health-advice site, it works by activating nicotine receptors in the brain to ease withdrawal symptoms. If you smoke while using it, nicotine won’t attach to those receptors.
The Chantix site is vaguer.
The headline promises to show you “how Chantix works,” but the fine print reveals something more wishful: “how Chantix is believed to work to help you quit” (emphasis added). This may be a clue about the origin of the Chantix name (which is otherwise opaque to me): It works only if you believe that chanting OM SHANTI or NAM MYO HO RENGE KYO or I HATE CIGARETTES will cause the universe to move favorably in your direction.
As they said on “The X Files,” I want to believe—not for myself, but for the 70-something woman who lives directly below me and whose secondhand smoke has been wafting into my condo through the plumbing for the five and a half years I’ve lived here.* (I asked her about it when I first moved in. She said, cheerfully, “Oh, I smoke a lot!”) Lately I think—I hope—I’ve detected a little less smoke. Maybe knowing that she’s at heightened risk for COVID-19 (age, badly compromised lungs) has finally spurred her to quit—cold turkey, slow turkey, sliced turkey, whatever.
UPDATE: On the American Dialect Society listserv, Dave Wilton of the Word Origins website reports that he searched newspaper archives and found earlier citations for cold turkey, including “quit cold turkey” from 1911.
* My friends have been hearing me kvetch for years about the situation. I’m so grateful to have a new audience.