Why Do We Say “Quit Cold Turkey”?

Planning to let go of a habit or two cold turkey in the New Year? Learn where that expression comes from first!

From “let the cat out of the bag” to “the dog days of summer,” there are all sorts of idiomatic expressions that don’t actually mean what they sound like they mean. Take “quit cold turkey,” for instance. Everyone knows you’re talking about quitting something—usually an addictive or unhealthy habit—not deciding to no longer eat lukewarm bird. In fact, you might hear this when people are talking about their New Year’s resolutions. But why do we use this expression? What do turkeys have to do with quitting something? And check out these other things to wonder about that you likely never thought of before.

What does “cold turkey” mean?

To “quit cold turkey” or “go cold turkey” means to stop doing something completely (or to try to, at least). The most common example you’ll likely hear is that someone is trying to quit smoking cold turkey. You may also hear it related to alcohol, drugs, or unhealthy eating. The severity of quitting “cold turkey” specifically contrasts with a slower, more gradual quitting regimen. If you plan to quit something cold turkey, you plan to instantly go from doing it to not doing it.

Needless to say, quitting an addictive habit cold turkey may not always work, which is why it’s such a bold statement that you’re quitting something cold turkey. For instance, consider the medication Chantix’s ad campaign, which says that it can help smokers quit “slow turkey,” complete with a cartoon turkey. It only works because of the consensus that quitting cold turkey may not be the most realistic.

Of course, quitting cold turkey doesn’t have to refer to a substance-related habit. You can also say you’re quitting something like doomscrolling cold turkey, or really anything that you think you’re doing too much of and want to stop.

But none of that explains what it has to do with turkeys! For that, we’ll have to turn to the origin of the expression. Find out why we say “break a leg” to performers, too!

Origins of “cold turkey”

The first appearance of this expression in the “quitting” context comes from a 1921 edition of The Daily Colonist, a British Columbia newspaper. It describes patients of a certain doctor who are trying to kick an addictive habit: “When they go before him, they are given what is called the ‘cold turkey’ treatment.”

The most likely origin of “cold turkey” is that it’s an evolution of the expression “talk turkey” or “talk cold turkey,” meaning to tell someone something straight and be completely honest. It could be a classic case of a figurative expression spawning another figurative expression.

There are a couple more literal explanations, too. One suggests that the expression comes from the fact that actual cold turkey, as a dish, requires very little preparation time. The expression, then, was to compare someone’s instant quitting of a habit to the instant readiness of cold, leftover turkey.

Yet another explanation suggests that it’s the withdrawal symptoms experienced by addicts who stop using drugs—goosebumps, chills, and pallid skin—that call to mind a cold, uncooked bird. This explanation has been parroted in such texts as the San Francisco Chronicle and the 2006 book Cop Speak: The Lingo of Law Enforcement and Crime.

Recorded uses of the phrase, though, seem to suggest that the “talk turkey” explanation is the most likely. While “talk turkey,” first recorded in 1824, originally referred to pleasant discourse, “talk cold turkey” was used to mean engaging in straight-up, unfettered discourse. In fact, a 1920 newspaper cartoon uses the expression “cold turkey” thusly: “Now tell me on the square—can I get by with this for the wedding—don’t string me—tell me cold turkey.” So basically, doing anything cold turkey meant doing it with no holds barred and no beating around the bush. (Hey, that’s another idiom!)

Next, learn why we say “knock on wood” and “dime a dozen.”

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Meghan Jones
Meghan Jones is a word nerd who has been writing for RD.com since 2017. You can find her byline on pieces about grammar, fun facts, the meanings of various head-scratching words and phrases, and more. Meghan graduated from Marist College with a Bachelor of Arts in English in 2017; her creative nonfiction piece “Anticipation” was published in the Spring 2017 issue of Angles literary magazine.