Why Is It Called ‘Cold Turkey’?

Many of us have heard of the term, ‘cold turkey’.

It’s a phrase that has been around for many years, and we often hear it in the context of someone quitting a bad habit: e.g., “I’m going to quit smoking cold turkey”.

But what does this phrase actually mean? Why do people use it? And why is it called ‘cold turkey?’

In this article, we are going to look deeper into the meaning of the expression, ‘cold turkey’, and explore some of its history. We’ll also discover how the expression came about, and why it was originally used as a reference to alcohol addiction.

So, let’s get into it.

What Does ‘Cold Turkey’ Mean?

The definition of the term, ‘cold turkey’, is as follows: “Without any preparation or warning.”

In other words, you just stop doing something without giving yourself time to prepare for the change. It is typically used by people who are planning, or are, quitting a habit right away without any support or procedures taken.

For example, if you were to say:

I’m going on a diet today, but I don’t want to lose weight slowly over a period of weeks. Instead, I’m going to go on a diet tomorrow morning, and not eat any processed food until I’ve lost 10 pounds.”

Then you would be using the term, ‘cold turkey’.

This means that you would be giving yourself no time to prepare for your new lifestyle, and will be jumping into the deep end right away, eating little to no processed food at all.

This is different from saying: “I’m starting a diet tomorrow, but I will still enjoy a treat day every week.” 

In this case, you would be preparing for your diet gradually, so that you can make sure that you enjoy your favorite foods once a week while losing weight at a slower, but healthier, rate.

Going ‘cold turkey’ can be very dangerous if done incorrectly.

For example, if you’re trying to quit smoking without using nicotine replacement therapy (NRT), then you could end up with severe withdrawal symptoms like nausea, vomiting, headaches, insomnia, etc.

This is different from what is called, ‘gradual withdrawal’. 

Gradual withdrawal means that you gradually reduce your use of the substance over a period of time. This may be done with counseling, medication, or some combination of both. The goal is to make sure that you don’t experience any unpleasant side effects.

The Origins Of The Term, ‘Cold Turkey’

There are several theories about where the expression came from, and it is uncertain which one is correct.

The first theory says that the expression was coined during World War II when American soldiers were told to go on a diet of only water and salt for three days.

They would then be given their normal rations again. The idea being that they had gotten rid of all the fat and sugar they had accumulated over the past few weeks.

Another theory states that the expression comes from the practice of using turpentine to clean out a smoker’s pipe before they quit. 

Turpentine is very caustic, so it burns off quickly, leaving behind a residue called tar. When this residue builds up inside the pipe, it can cause problems with the tobacco burning properly.

So, the idea was to use turpentine to burn off the tar, and then allow the pipe to cool down so that the tar could not build back up. 

A third theory of the origin of the term, ‘cold turkey’, is that it comes from the practice of literally removing an animal’s head from its body before slaughtering it.

In this case, the word, ‘turkey’, refers to the bird’s head which is removed before the rest of the carcass is processed.

This would make sense since removing an animal’s head is a quick way to kill them. Plus, the turkey would become cold once it has died, giving the term, ‘cold turkey’, a much more literal meaning.

Another popular belief is that it has something to do with how quickly a dinner cooked with cold turkey can be put together because no cooking is required. However, there is no evidence to support this claim.

So, we’ll never know exactly why the expression, ‘cold turkey,’ came into usage. 

However, the fact remains that it does have a lot of history behind it and possible origins. Despite there being several theories about where the term originated from, and what it originally meant, there is no definite answer to its true origins.

The First Uses Of The Term, ‘Cold Turkey’

It is understood that this phrase has been commonly used since the early 1920s, appearing in numerous articles and newspapers in the US.

The first documented use of the word as we know it now — to describe withdrawal — was in the British Columbia newspaper, the Daily Columnist, in 1921, according to Merriam-Webster.

The line written was, ”Perhaps the most pitiful figures who have appeared before Dr. Carleton Simon … are those who voluntarily surrender themselves. When they go before him, they are given what is called the ‘cold turkey’ treatment.’

In the United States, the earliest documented uses of the phrase, “cold turkey,” come from New York City newspapers in 1927. An article from the Brooklyn Eagle stated: “They have been given the ‘cold turkey’ method of quitting.”

Another newspaper article from the same year used the expression, ‘cold turkey,’ to describe a new policy by the National Recovery Administration (NRA). It said: “In other words, the NRA is going to give the country the ‘cold turkey’ approach.”

By the 1930s, the expression was commonly used to refer to something that was abrupt or unexpected. 

For example, a 1936 article in the Chicago Tribune described how the U.S. government had decided to send troops into Mexico without consulting the Mexican people. It said: “It will be a ‘cold turkey’ proposition to get the Mexicans to accept our terms.”

The Term, ‘Cold Turkey’, Used As A Metaphor For Overcoming Addiction

The expression, ‘cold turkey’, began to take on a metaphorical meaning around the mid-1930s.

Allegedly, the first recorded use of the phrase, ‘cold turkey,’ as a metaphor for overcoming addiction, occurred in 1935 when the Los Angeles Times wrote about a woman named Mary who was addicted to morphine.

Her doctor told her she needed to stop taking the drug immediately. He gave her a prescription for heroin instead. She took the drugs and then stopped using them. 

After two weeks, she felt better than ever. The article said: “She went through the ‘cold turkey’ process.”

The expression, ‘cold turkey’, has since been used to describe the process used by individuals attempting to overcome addictions and bad habits, such as smoking, drinking, overeating, etc. In addition, the phrase has also been used to describe the act of stopping an activity abruptly.

Is Quitting ‘Cold Turkey’ A Good Idea?

There have been many conflicting thoughts on going ‘cold turkey’ while giving up an addiction, whether it is a good idea or a bad one.

Some say that it’s not a good idea because you may experience withdrawal symptoms, which can include headaches, nausea, insomnia, muscle aches, anxiety, and more.

This method has often led to recovering addicts to relapse after only a few days due to these withdrawal symptoms. It has been said by some that, when overcoming an addiction, it is better to do it gradually over time rather than suddenly.

Others believe that it’s a great way to quit because it gives you time to prepare yourself mentally and physically for the change. They also feel that going cold turkey helps you avoid the temptation to start back up again after your detox period.

Some people find that going cold turkey works well for them, but others don’t like the idea at all. If you’re considering doing this, it might help if you know why you want to quit.

If you decide to try going ‘cold turkey’, make sure you talk with your doctor first. This is especially important if you have any medical conditions, such as heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure, asthma, kidney problems, or liver disease.

Your doctor can tell you what kind of medications you should take during your detox period.

If you do decide to go ‘cold turkey’, remember that there are different ways to accomplish this goal. You could simply stop using the addictive substance completely, or you could gradually reduce the amount of the drug you consume over a certain period of time.

Final Thoughts

So, there we have it!

While there is no definite answer for where the term originated, or why it was created, there are a handful of theories of where this expression may have come from. However, it seems that most agree that it was coined sometime during the late 1910s to the early 1920s.

If you are thinking about giving up an unhealthy habit and going ‘cold turkey’, it is so important that you speak to your doctor beforehand. This will ensure that you get the best treatment possible, as some people react badly to giving up certain substances without help or support.

Remember that quitting an addiction isn’t easy, but it is definitely worth it in the end.

Hopefully this article has helped you understand the meaning behind the term, ‘cold turkey’, a little more!

Jonie Dean
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