Why Do We Say We’re “Going Cold Turkey”?

(Last Updated On: July 16, 2019)

Why Do We Say We’re "Going Cold Turkey"?

Have you ever just sat down and decided you weren’t going to do something anymore? Maybe it was something you liked, or just something you did often. An addiction (psychological or chemical) perhaps? Maybe you tried to wean yourself off something, and just couldn’t, or you just jumped to this step. Regardless, if you or a friend has tried to just up and stop doing something, someone probably said you were “going cold turkey.” But where does that come from? Surely stale Thanksgiving dinner and getting rid of your raging caffeine addiction or odd Twitter habits can’t be related, right?

For the sake of clarification regarding the phrase, one normally goes “cold turkey” when it comes to withdrawal symptoms (more narrowly, drug addiction). So you’re going cold turkey when you’re stopping the use of something despite the likely experience of withdrawal. While the phrase is thrown around a bit more now, we’re sticking to this stricter definition for the sake of discussing its origins.

Why Do We Say We’re “Going Cold Turkey”?

In terms of addiction, the process of going “cold turkey” first appears in print around the 1920s. Some attribute the origin to a 1921 article from the Daily Colonist, a British Columbia newspaper. The article references Dr. Carleton Simon and his technique for treating addiction.

“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.” 

Weirdly enough, the saying was also slang term for pleading guilty in the 1920s. But the question remains: why turkey, and why is it cold?

But Why Is it Cold?

As much as we’d like to say the Daily Colonist used the phrase because the editor was sick from some stale poultry, that’s likely not the case. That is because there is lots of evidence that “cold turkey” was used even before it came to be applied to addiction.

The use of “cold turkey” as a colloquialism is often attributed to Judy, a satirical magazine from the UK, sometime in the late-19th century. However, its use of the phrase was in reference to excommunication. Still, this was an early example of “cold turkey” used in an exclusionary sense. 

We can go back even further if we try, though. Way back in the early 1800s, people would “talk turkey.” Talking turkey basically means you’re just being straight up with your manner of speaking. There’s also the use of the word “cold,” which refers to straightforwardness and matter-of-factness. So with all that in mind, it’s not too hard to see the evolution of squishing these two turns of phrase together. The progression afterward isn’t too much of a reach either.

Don’t go cold turkey on Sporcle quizzes! Go get yourself some pudgy poultry here.

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Kyler is a content writer at Sporcle living in Seattle, and is currently studying at the University of Washington School of Law. He's been writing for Sporcle since 2019; sometimes the blog is an excellent platform to answer random personal questions he has about the world. Most of his free time is spent drinking black coffee like water.