Where Did Cold Turkey Come From? The Spicy Origin Story!

Have you ever stopped something suddenly and without preparation? Maybe you quit smoking or drinking? And if so, have you ever heard the phrase ‘cold turkey’? In this article, we are going to explore the origin story of this famous phrase, what it means, where it comes from and why we use it today.

The Meaning of Cold Turkey

‘Cold turkey’ is a phrase used to describe quitting something suddenly without any preparation or time to adjust. It is commonly used when referring to quitting a drug or substance addiction. When someone quits something ‘cold turkey’, they cut off all contact with that substance or habit as if they were suddenly being served cold turkey instead of the warm and tasty meal they were used to.

This sudden cessation of something can lead to a series of unpleasant withdrawal symptoms. For instance, if you quit smoking cold turkey, the nicotine withdrawal can cause symptoms like irritability, headaches, and even nausea. Similar symptoms can also result from quitting alcohol or drugs cold turkey.

The Origin of Cold Turkey

The origin of the phrase ‘cold turkey’ is shrouded in mystery, but there are a few theories. Let’s dive into some of the most popular ones:

Origin Story 1: Cold Turkey as a Metaphor

The first theory speculates that the phrase ‘cold turkey’ derived from the ‘talk turkey’ phrase popular in the 19th century, meaning to talk bluntly or straightforwardly. According to this theory, the phrase ‘cold turkey’ was likely borrowed from this metaphor, implying that someone who quits something ‘cold turkey’ did so bluntly, directly, and without euphemisms.

Origin Story 2: Cold Turkey as a Snack

The second theory stems from the idea that ‘cold turkey’ is just a metaphor for the way cold turkey is eaten. Cold turkey is commonly eaten after Thanksgiving or Christmas, and the turkey is usually sliced and served cold. It is speculated that those who quit drugs or alcohol cold turkey felt as if they were served a slice of cold turkey since they had nothing else to fall back on. That is to say, quitting something cold turkey felt as if they were eating something much less better on their palate.

Origin Story 3: Cold Turkey as Withdrawal Symptoms

According to a third theory, the phrase ‘cold turkey’ may have originated from the withdrawal symptoms experienced by those who decided to quit drugs or alcohol suddenly. This theory claims that the symptoms of drug detox and withdrawal resemble the cold, clammy symptoms of coming down with the flu. The concept of ‘cold turkey’ in this theory is a reference to such symptoms.

Why We Use Cold Turkey Today

The phrase ‘cold turkey’ is widely used today to signify abruptly stopping a bad habit or addiction. It’s a phrase that has been around for quite some time and continues to make its way in modern-day conversations.

Cold turkey is still a popular method for many people who wish to quit smoking, drinking, or stop using drugs. However, it is important to note that cold turkey isn’t always the best method for everyone. The reality is that there are many factors to consider when quitting a bad habit, and every person is different. Therefore, the best way to quit smoking, drinking, or using drugs often requires tailored methods or a doctor’s advice.

Cold Turkey Vs. Tapering: Which is Better?

The big question on many people’s minds is whether cold turkey or tapering is the best way to quit a habit. Tapering means slowly reducing one’s intake until complete cessation. Here are the pros and cons of each method:

The Pros of Cold Turkey

  • Cold turkey is quick and direct
  • It can be efficient if one is ready for it

The Cons of Cold Turkey

  • Cold turkey can be painful, emotional and traumatic due to withdrawal symptoms that follow abruptly quitting
  • Cold turkey can trigger relapses in some people
  • It can have long-term consequences that may affect a person’s health

The Pros of Tapering

  • Tapering one’s intake means that withdrawal symptoms won’t be as severe
  • Tapering allows for a person to avoid any painful and risky withdrawal symptoms while receiving medical attention
  • Tapering can help eliminate the desire to continue using or drinking whatever substance one is trying to quit

The Cons of Tapering

  • Tapering is a slow process that can take months, possibly even years, to return to normal
  • It may not be a feasible option for those who are ready to quit quickly and abruptly

Cold Turkey and Popular Culture

Cold turkey has been used in various movies and music across popular culture, and it has become a common phrase for abruptly quitting something. Here are some examples:

  • Eric Clapton released a song in 1971 called ‘Cold Turkey’, describing his addiction to heroin and his abrupt decision to quit. The song would become a classic and widely regarded as one of Clapton’s best.
  • In 1973, the movie ‘The Sting’ featured the phrase ‘cold turkey’ when the character played by Robert Redford declares, “I’m not going to stop now; I want him cold turkey,” while discussing a plan to take down the antagonist.
  • In 2000, a movie called ‘Requiem for a Dream’ was released, which highlighted the heroin addiction of four main characters. The title of the film is a play on words for the idea of longing for something that can’t be attained, much like a drug addiction.


The phrase ‘cold turkey’ may seem like a simple phrase, but as we have seen, it has a fascinating origin story. It originated from unclear beginnings, and we now use it daily to refer to the abrupt stopping of a bad habit or addiction. It may not always be the best method for everyone, and there are other ways to quit a bad habit or addiction depending on various factors. However, if you decide to quit something cold turkey, be prepared for the painful withdrawal symptoms that may follow.

Most Commonly Asked Questions About Cold Turkey

  • What does ‘cold turkey’ mean?
  • ‘Cold turkey’ means quitting something suddenly without any pre-planning or preparation. It is a phrase commonly used to describe stopping a bad habit or addiction abruptly.

  • Where did the phrase ‘cold turkey’ come from?
  • The origin of the phrase ‘cold turkey’ is shrouded in mystery. Some theories suggest it is because of the way cold turkey is served and eaten, while others suggest it’s because of the symptoms associated with withdrawal, which are similar to cold, clammy flu symptoms.

  • What are the symptoms of quitting cold turkey?
  • The symptoms of quitting something cold turkey depend on what a person is quitting. However, for substances like nicotine, alcohol, or drugs, the withdrawal symptoms can be quite unpleasant, including irritability, headaches, nausea, and flu-like symptoms. Quitting without a doctor’s advice can lead to severe health complications that may threaten the individual’s life.

  • Is quitting cold turkey the best way to quit a habit?
  • Cold turkey isn’t always the best way to quit something for everyone. It is vital to consider the individual’s health and medical history. Quitting abruptly can have long-term consequences that may impact the individual’s overall well-being. It is always wise to consult with a medical professional before commencing a singular-type withdrawal method.

  • What are some of the popular culture references to ‘cold turkey’?
  • ‘Cold turkey’ has been used in various movies and music, such as Eric Clapton’s 1971 song ‘Cold Turkey’ that highlights his heroin addiction and abrupt decision to quit. The 1973 Robert Redford movie ‘The Sting’ also featured the phrase, as well as the 2000 movie ‘Requiem for a Dream.’


  • https://www.etymonline.com/search?q=cold+turkey
  • https://dictionary.cambridge.org/us/dictionary/english/cold-turkey
  • https://www.history.com/news/cold-turkey-origin-meaning-cigarette-heroin

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