The term “cold turkey” is often used when someone attempts to quit a habit like smoking, drinking, or eating their favorite deserts immediately without the benefit of a weaning process.
The fact that turkeys are so popular in the United States may lead you to believe this is where the phrase was coined. If so, you are correct. What might surprise you, however, is that the phrase was first used to refer to someone who is “plain speaking.” This meaning of the phrase is still in use today but is not used nearly as much as the more recent meaning.
The Des Moines Daily News is responsible for the phrase “cold turkey” appearing in print for the first time. The phrase appeared in a 1914 article describing a Sunday sermon by “Reverend Billy.”
No one can say for sure why turkeys became associated with the reference, but a few theories exist. One story involves pilgrims and Native Americans using the phrase while enjoying “the first thanksgiving.” However, there is no credible evidence to suggest this might be true.
A more likely explanation for the “talking cold turkey” reference is the fact that a plate of turkey is seen as a simple, no-frills meal. So a person who was known for “talking cold turkey” was probably said to communicate in a simple and straightforward fashion. There is not much evidence to back this theory up either but it seems a bit more feasible than the previous theory.
One of the first times the phrase was used to describe an abrupt cessation of a bad habit was found in the The Daily Colonist, a newspaper published in Canada. This reference was made in 1921 to “cold turkey” drug treatments delivered to patients by Dr. Carleton Simon.
More than likely, both uses of the phrase were probably common before they appeared in print. It is unclear how the jump was made from speaking plainly to no longer indulging in a vice was made, but both uses presumably refer to a plate of turkey.
Another theory floating around refers to the belief that a person suffering from withdrawal symptoms can appear a bit like the cold carcass of a turkey. It is also a common condition for people suffering withdrawal from a drug like heroin to feel cold and clammy to the touch. In fact, Heroin was made popular by claims from its maker that it was a harmless drug that was not addictive and capable of curing many illnesses a short time before the “cold turkey” phrase was used to describe sudden abstinence from drugs.
But in the end, there is a lot more speculation regarding each of these theories than existing evidence to lend concrete support to any of the theories. But regardless of the origin, the phrase began to be used to describe someone quitting drugs in the 1920s. Later, the phrase was extended to include sudden abstinence from other things like food addictions and other bad habits.