In his insane collection of fake etymology, How The Irish Invented Slang, Daniel Cassidy made many ridiculous claims. None is more ridiculous than his claim about the origins of the expression ‘cold turkey’, a slang term for the awful fever and craving which an addict goes through when giving up drugs (especially heroin). Cassidy would have known a thing or two about this, as he spent 23 months in rehab at Phoenix House, where he managed to kick his narcotics habit. (Please note, I am not sneering at Cassidy here. I have nothing but respect for people who manage to overcome addictions. My beef with Cassidy is to do with his arrogance, his nastiness and his incompetence, not his history of drug-abuse).
The term ‘cold turkey’ makes its appearance quite late on, in the early 50s. There are various theories about its origin. The most convincing is quite simply that it is descriptive of the cold clammy flesh and goosebumps associated with withdrawal.
Cassidy, of course, had a different view. According to him, this is the Irish word coillteoireacht, which he claims means ‘cutting off, expurgation, castration’. Back in the real world, coillteoireacht is an abstract noun from coillteoir, which has two separate meanings and two separate etymologies. One is from the noun coill, meaning a wood. In this case, coillteoir means a woodcutter or forester. The other is from the verb coill, meaning to geld or to spoil. So coillteoir means someone who castrates or despoils. So coillteoireacht can mean ‘the actions or behaviour of one who is engaged in forestry work’ or ‘the actions or behaviour of one who castrates or despoils.’ Well, that’s such a close correspondence to the meanings of cold turkey, it’s truly amazing nobody ever made the connection before, especially when you consider that coillteoireacht almost sounds a little bit like cold turkey!
Of course, this is complete nonsense. It isn’t a fit in terms of meaning, or sound, or the date of its appearance, and an Irish speaker back then would probably call it haras na ndrugaí (from English horrors), or rámhaille na ndrugaí, or something like that. Coillteoireacht? Not a chance!
Incidentally, this reminds me of a well-known story about an Irish country and western band back in the 60s and 70s who called themselves Big Tom and the Mainliners, unaware that mainliner had the slang meaning of heroin-user in the States. When Big Tom went to America, loads of druggie types turned up to the concerts only to find that Big Tom was more Jim Reeves than Lou Reed.