Cold Turkey

Delirium tremens

Cold turkey refers to the abrupt cessation of a substance dependence and the resulting unpleasant experience, as opposed to gradually easing the process through reduction over time or by using replacement medication. The term comes from the piloerection or ‘goose bumps’ that occurs with abrupt withdrawal from opioids, which resembles the skin of a plucked, refrigerated turkey.

Sudden withdrawal from drugs such as alcohol, benzodiazepines, and barbiturates can be extremely dangerous, leading to potentially fatal seizures. For long-term alcoholics, going cold turkey can cause life-threatening delirium tremens, rendering this an inappropriate method for breaking an alcohol addiction.

In the case of opioid withdrawal, going ‘cold turkey’ is extremely unpleasant but less dangerous. Life-threatening issues are unlikely unless one has a pre-existing medical condition. Smoking cessation methods advanced by J. Wayne McFarland and Elman J. Folkenburg (an M.D. and a pastor who wrote their ‘Five Day Plan’ ca. 1959), Joel Spitzer and John R. Polito (smoking cessation educators), and Allen Carr (who founded Easyway during the early 1980s) are all cold turkey plans.

Though the very first adaptation of the phrase ‘cold turkey’ to its current meaning is a matter of some debate and ambiguity, scholars of 19th-century British periodicals have pointed to the UK satirical magazine ‘Judy’ as the true catalyst of ‘cold turkey’s’ evolution in meaning. ‘Judy’ enjoyed a very wide readership, in no small part because it contained the first serial comic strip, ‘Ally Sloper,’ which followed its namesake character’s adventures as a cartoon wartime correspondent.

Among Judy’s other popular features, specifically in the journal’s issue of January 3, 1877, was the fictional diary of one John Humes, Esquire. The diary’s transcript on the day in question details Mr. Hume’s exploits over his Christmas holiday. Throughout, Humes demonstrates a humbug attitude, complaining to every shopkeeper and acquaintance about the irony of the words ‘merry’ and ‘jolly’ being attached to the season.

Most significantly, Hume is invited to stay at his cousin Clara’s as a part of her household’s celebrations. Hume, miser to the core, is shocked that Clara serves him slices of (literal) cold turkey with his pudding and other side dishes on the evening of his arrival. A poor substitute for the roasted and dressed kind of turkey, is the continually played-up implication in the comedy piece. The dissatisfied barrister stays several days nonetheless, and with each passing day he is more and more shocked that the cold turkey finds its way onto his plate again. Finally, Hume arrives home, utterly disgusted at having been treated so badly. He calls for his estate lawyer and chops Clara completely out of his will and testament.

The hypothesis posited by researchers is that word quickly spread around London, greater Europe, and finally the U.S. about Hume’s having given Clara ‘the cold turkey treatment,’ as in excluding and excommunicating someone (taking Clara out of his will) in order to exact revenge for the person’s ongoing ill treatment of oneself (the repeated serving of the cold turkey). 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’: ‘Once I used to gamble an’ drink the limit. One morning I got up from the card-table after sitting there thirty-six hours. I’d lost five thousand dollars. I knew they’d handed me out ‘cold turkey’ …’

The phrase ‘taking cold turkey’ has also been reported during the 1920s as slang for pleading guilty in a judicial proceeding.


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