At the Strong Language table this U.S. Thanksgiving, we’ll be having none of that euphemistic white or dark meat first served up in the polite speech of 19th-century American English. No, we’ll be piling our plates high with turkey breasts and thighs.
But there’s another part of the turkey that may be a bit naughty if we look to its linguistic history: the wishbone.
Some ultimately derive wishbone customs from divinatory practices of the ancient Etruscans, but etymologists derive the word wishbone back to 19th-century American English. The Oxford English Dictionary first cites it in the third edition of John Russell Bartlett‘s 1859 Dictionary of Americanisms. Bartlett thoroughly describes this wish-bone or wishing-bone, as his headword enters it:
The breastbone of a fowl is so familiarly called, especially by children, from a custom connected with it. The bone, after being dried, is taken by two persons, who hold each shank between their fore-finger and thumb, and then pull until it breaks, at the same time wishing for something. The one in whose fingers the larger portion remains, it is said, will have his wish.
Children indeed enjoy the wishbone. And so do, adults, as we’ll see.
Americans adopted the custom from the British (who, as it is at least popularly claimed, adapted it from the Romans, taking it in turn from the Etruscans). And while Americans may be used to breaking the wishbones of turkeys, historically the British would be breaking those of geese, chickens, or other fowl.
Now, in British English, this wishbone was actually once called the merrythought. The OED cites merrythought in 1598 and also in an early dictionary: John Florio‘s Italian-English dictionary, A Worlde of Wordes. Here, Florio glosses the Italian catriosso as “the bone called the merie thought.”
This merrythought behaves similarly to wishbone in sound and sense: Both words are compounds nouns and refer to some pleasant cogitation, shall we say, while breaking the furcula. Furcula is the scientific name for this bird bone, from the Latin for “little fork”—and a little sweary-sounding in its own right.
But its merrythought‘s particular merriment where things get a bit more grownup. As the New English Dictionary (later, the OED) observed of merrythought in its 1908 volume:
The name, like the synonym wish-bone, alludes to the playful custom of two persons pulling the furcula of a fowl until it breaks; according to the popular notion, the one who gets the longer (in some districts, shorter) piece will either be married sooner than the other, or will gain the fulfillment of any wish he may form at the moment.
Getting married? Certainly a dream come true. And even if your English dialect doesn’t merge the pronunciation of merry and marry, the wordplay is clear.
But many a bone-wishing bachelor may have had the marriage bed more so in mind. So, getting lucky may be more like it, if another citation of merrythought has its say. The OED points to an alternative theory of its origin, referencing English polymath John Aubrey‘s late 1600s folklore compilation, Remaines of Gentilisme and Judaisme. In a passage called Lotts, Aubrey writes:
‘Tis common for two to breake the Merrythought of a chicken-hen, or wood-cock, &c., the Anatomists call it the Clavicula; ’tis called the merrythought, because when the fowle is opened, dissected, or carv’d, it resembles the pudenda of a woman.
Aubrey goes on to describe a slightly different, more involved, and, at least to my modern sensibility, more suggestive ritual of breaking the wishbone than we’ve seen thus far:
The manner of breaking it, as I have it from the woemen, is thus: viz. One puts yᵉ merrithought on his nose (slightly) like a pair of spectacles, and shakes his head till he shakes it off his nose, thinking all the while his Thought; then he holds one of the legs of it between his forefinger and Thumbe, and another hold the other in like manner, and breake it; he that has the longer part, has got the Thought; then he that has got the thought putts both parts into his hand, and the other draws (by way of Lott), and then they both Wish, and he that lost his Thought drawes; if he drawes the longest part, he has [gets] his wish, if the shorter he looses his Wish.
I’m not quite sure what the distinction between Thought and Wish is, but, on a word-nerdy side-note, I do love the late usage of y for the Old English thorn in yᵉ, shorthand for the.
So, we might say the purportedly pudendal appearance of the furcula puts the um, "bone" in wishbone—and, if we look to historical meanings of the word, shades merry naughty, to say the least.
In its treatment of this merrythought, the OED goes on to reference Gordon Williams’ Dictionary of Sexual Language in Shakespearean and Stuart Literature. This merry, variously denoting “pleasing” and “joyful” in its long history, may not have always been so family-friendly. I was unable to consult the actual text the OED refers us to, but I did consult his Shakespeare’s Sexual Language. For merry, Williams offers “wanton,” which, among its other meanings, has been levied on sexually promiscuous woman since the 1400s.This merry meaning compels the OED to suggest that “the traditional theory may perhaps be a euphemistic folk etymology.” You may not want Dad to carve the turkey this year.
As the English writer Frederick Locker-Lampson quipped in his 1857 London Lyrics:
They cannot be complete in aught
Who are not humorously prone;
A man without a merry thought
Can hardly have a funny bone.
Alas, as far as I can tell from reviews of his poetry (as well as its later quotations in Demorset’s Family Magazine and Home Needlework Magazine, among other wholesome publications), Locker-Lampson was earnest in his verse, neither punning on merry or bone nor referring to the furcula. Alas!
But perhaps the poet’s larger point—about the importance of humor—echoes our own celebration of strong language here. This Thanksgiving, eat, drink, and be sweary.