To “go cold turkey” means to withdraw suddenly and completely from addictive substances, such as alcohol, heroin, and chocolate cake, and endure the resulting unpleasant experience. Also, predominantly in the USA, it means plain speaking.
The Oxford English Dictionary says the phrase first appeared in print in the early 1900s, and was later tied specifically to quitting addictive substances in the 1920s, but its exact origin is unclear. Such phrases are often in use for years before they make it into print, so may actually be much older.
It has been suggested, because in the state of drug withdrawal the addict’s blood is directed to the internal organs, leaving the skin white and with goose bumps, looking like raw turkey skin, that this is where the phrase “cold turkey” comes from. There’s no evidence to support that view.
“Cold turkey” may have evolved from the older idiom “talk turkey.” Since the latter phrase meant “to speak frankly and plainly,” to quit something “cold turkey” might have naturally followed to mean abandoning something with similar directness.
In a cartoon that appeared in newspapers on November 12, 1920, ace slang-man Thomas “TAD” Dorgan used cold turkey this way — “Now tell me on the square — can I get by with this for the wedding — don’t string me — tell me cold turkey.”
Perhaps “talk cold turkey,” referencing a simple, uncomplicated meal, became a metaphor for simple, unadorned, direct speech.
Scholars of 1800s British periodicals have suggested the UK satirical magazine Judy as the true catalyst of “cold turkey’s” evolution in meaning. Judy’s January 3, 1877 issue had the fictional diary of one John Humes, Esquire. Significantly, Hume is invited to stay at his cousin Clara’s for the Christmas celebrations. Hume is shocked that Clara serves him slices of cold turkey, rather than hot, roasted, and dressed turkey, for several days. Disgusted at having been treated so badly, Hume chops Clara completely out of his will.
The hypothesis posited by researchers is that word quickly spread around London, greater Europe, and finally the US, about Hume’s having given Clara “the cold turkey treatment.” Over the decades, cutting someone off in this context came to include cutting something off, as in today’s “quitting [a substance] cold turkey.”
The next earliest print appearance of “cold turkey” in its exclusionary sense dates to 1910, in Canadian poet Robert W. Service’s The Trail of ’98: A Northland Romance.
Another early printed use occurred in the Daily Colonist in British Columbia in 1921.
“Perhaps the most pitiful figures who have appeared before Dr. Carleton Simon are those who voluntarily surrender themselves. When they go before him, they [drug addicts] are given what is called the ‘cold turkey’ treatment.”
On February 26, 1951, Time magazine’s article “High & Light” also used the phrase, in reference to drug addition.
This example from The Des Moines Daily News, May 1914 illustrates the use of “cold turkey” as speaking plainly: “I’ve heard [Reverend Billy] Sunday give his ‘Booze’ sermon, and believe me that rascal can make tears flow out of a stone. And furthermore he talks ‘cold turkey.’ You know what I mean — calls a spade a spade.”
“Cold turkey” means no nonsense talking and no nonsense doing — going straight to the scene of action. But, if it’s my scene, I want hot turkey, with gravy and mashed potatoes.