The (Somewhat Dark) History of Presidential Turkey Pardoning

During this auspicious holiday weekend, I would like to say a few words about the deeply significant and heartfelt tradition of Thanksgiving Turkey pardoning.

Every year, the President of the United States officially grants a presidential pardon to the turkey fortunate enough to be selected as the National Thanksgiving Turkey. This tradition officially became an annual event during the Bush 41 administration. But its roots go all the way back to good ol' Abraham Lincoln.

Allegedly, Lincoln's favorite son Tad befriended the turkey fated to be Thanksgiving dinner and convinced Father Honest Abe to spare him. Lincoln, still guilt-tripping over a childhood incident where he shot a turkey, wrote the turkey an order of reprieve when Tad tearfully interrupted a cabinet meeting.

The first official National Thanksgiving Turkey was presented by members of the Poultry and Egg National Board to Harry Truman in 1947. According to some reports, they ate him. Nevertheless, this presentation became an annual event. Lots of yummy turkeys were devoured, except when President Kennedy spared the life of the turkey he was presented in 1963. The turkey was returned back to the farm from whence it came from.

In 1989, President George H.W. Bush announced, "This fine tom turkey has been granted a presidential pardon as of right now," inadvertently kicking off the official pardoning tradition that continues to this day.

So yes, a turkey gets spared and gets sent to live out the rest of it's days at Frying Pan Park in Virginia "“ or more recently, petting zoos at Disneyland and Disney World.

Of course, the President probably still eats turkey for Thanksgiving dinner. As Bill Clinton put it in 1999, "They bring me a big turkey and we let one go so we can eat all the others."

Not that it necessarily matters, since the turkeys who get pardoned don't live for very long anyway. According to The New York Times, "Whether the turkeys come from a shelter or the White House, they don't live very long. Most adopted turkeys are commercially bred broad-breasted whites, genetically disposed to grow to a marketable size in about four months. Even on a diet of only a couple of cups of turkey feed a day, they become obese. They usually develop leg problems, congestive heart failure and arthritis."

The presidentially pardoned turkeys are just too fat to live. They usually die within a year. In one case, a pardoned turkey died one day after it arrived at the farm. The only surviving turkey from past ceremonies is Biscuits (from 2004), and that turkey is too ill to be displayed to the public. Commercially bred turkeys are prone to getting heart attacks--some even keeled over when the Air Force was doing sound barrier testing. Most of the presidential turkeys can barely walk, so they keel over pretty quickly.

So, er, actually, it's not much of a pardon. Gobble Gobble!

Marissa Minna Lee is an occasional contributor to Her last story was about guinea pigs.

How Do You Stress the Word: THANKSgiving or ThanksGIVing?

Here’s something else to stress about for Thanksgiving: where to put the stress in the word Thanksgiving.

If you’re from California, Iowa, or Delaware, you probably say ThanksGIVing, with the primary stress on the second syllable. If you’re from Georgia, Tennessee, or the Texas Panhandle, you probably say THANKSgiving, with the primary stress on the first syllable.

This north-south divide on syllable stress is found for other words like umbrella, guitar, insurance, and pecan. However, those words are borrowed from other languages (Italian, Spanish, French). Sometimes, in the borrowing process, competing stress patterns settle into regional differences. Just as some borrowed words get first syllable stress in the South and second syllable stress in the North, French words like garage and ballet get first syllable stress in the UK and second syllable stress in the U.S.

Thanksgiving, however, is an English word through and through. And if it behaved like a normal English word, it would have stress on the first syllable. Consider other words with the same noun-gerund structure just like it: SEAfaring, BAbysitting, HANDwriting, BULLfighting, BIRDwatching, HOMEcoming, ALMSgiving. The stress is always up front, on the noun. Why, in Thanksgiving alone, would stress shift to the GIVE?

The shift to the ThanksGIVing pronunciation is a bit of a mystery. Linguist John McWhorter has suggested that the loss of the stress on thanks has to do with a change in our concept of the holiday, that we “don’t truly think about Thanksgiving as being about thankfulness anymore.” This kind of thing can happen when a word takes on a new, more abstract sense. When we use outgoing for mail that is literally going out, we are likely to stress the OUT. When we use it as a description of someone’s personality ("She's so outgoing!"), the stress might show up on the GO. Stress can shift with meaning.

But the stress shift might not be solely connected to the entrenchment of our turkey-eating rituals. The thanksGIVing stress pattern seems to have pre-dated the institution of the American holiday, according to an analysis of the meter of English poems by Mark Liberman at Language Log. ThanksGIVing has been around at least since the 17th century. However you say it, there is precedent to back you up. And room enough to focus on both the thanks and the giving.

TAKWest, Youtube
Watch Boris Karloff's 1966 Coffee Commercial
TAKWest, Youtube
TAKWest, Youtube

Horror legend Boris Karloff is famous for playing mummies, mad scientists, and of course, Frankenstein’s creation. In 1930, Karloff cemented the modern image of the monster—with its rectangular forehead, bolted neck, and enormous boots (allegedly weighing in at 11 pounds each)—in the minds of audiences.

But the horror icon, who was born 130 years ago today, also had a sense of humor. The actor appeared in numerous comedies, and even famously played a Boris Karloff look-alike (who’s offended when he’s mistaken for Karloff) in the original Broadway production of Arsenic and Old Lace

In the ’60s, Karloff also put his comedic chops to work in a commercial for Butter-Nut Coffee. The strange commercial, set in a spooky mansion, plays out like a movie scene, in which Karloff and the viewer are co-stars. Subtitles on the bottom of the screen feed the viewer lines, and Karloff responds accordingly. 

Watch the commercial below to see the British star selling coffee—and read your lines aloud to feel like you’re “acting” alongside Karloff. 

[h/t: Retroist]


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