How "Quit Cold Turkey" Became a Popular Phrase

We've all heard and probably used the phrase "quit cold turkey" at one point or another, but have you ever stopped and wondered where this saying came from?

Whether it's as an idiom like "going cold turkey" or "quitting cold turkey," we often hear and probably have used the phrase 'cold turkey' when we're talking about someone who stops doing something abruptly and completely: usually when referring to stopping a bad habit, like an addictive substance such as smoking or drug-use.

While this saying is used quite commonly nowadays, have you ever wondered where this ordinary phrase originated from? And how it came to be related, almost exclusively, to the action of sudden drug withdrawal?

Where Did "Quit Cold Turkey" Come From?

Although we know that this common saying has its origins rooted in America, no one really knows how the phrase exactly originated. Even though the exact origin of  "quit cold turkey" is unclear, there are several theories and explanations as to how this now-common phrase may have come to be.

It might surprise you to know that one of the possibilities is that it might have derived from an older idiom: "talking turkey", or simply, "talk turkey." With origins going back to the Native Americans, the saying "talk turkey" (sometimes even said as "talking cold turkey") means to speak plainly and frankly, with no nonsense — with this in mind, the old idiom might have later evolved to describe situations where one would stop doing something in a direct, no-nonsense way.

Another theory is that the saying might have derived from actual cold turkey. Cold turkey takes very little preparation time — and might have later become a metaphor for when someone quits doing something abruptly, as that's also with little preparation time.

The last and final theory, and perhaps the most likely theory, is that the phrase "quitting cold turkey" comes from the similarities found between the withdrawal symptoms of drug addicts and, well, an actual cold turkey. When someone quits cold turkey, they abruptly stop their bad habits, things like smoking or hard drugs, instead of tapering off their drug addiction. Other than being cold and clammy, one of the detoxification symptoms can also include goosebumps on the skin, which is similar to the skin of a cold turkey. (i.e. a sign of opiate withdrawal is "gooseflesh", which results in the skin having small goosebumps.)

According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, the first recorded use of the phrase was in 1921 in the Daily Colonist newspaper in British Columbia, where it said,

"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."

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