"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.
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.
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 cold turkey plans.
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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).
The next known 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' ..."
Another possible origin relates to the American phrase talk turkey, meaning "to speak bluntly with little preparation". The phrase "taking cold turkey" has also been reported during the 1920s as slang for pleading guilty.
The term is also attributed to piloerection or "goose bumps" that occurs with abrupt withdrawal from opioids, which resembles the skin of a plucked refrigerated turkey. However, the term was used in other contexts before being used to describe withdrawal. The similar term "kick the habit" alludes to the muscle spasms that occur in addition to goosebumps in some cases.
A term appears in its contemporary usage in a December 1920 New York City medical bulletin:
Some addicts voluntarily stop taking opiates and "suffer it out" as they express it without medical assistance, a process which in their slang is called taking "cold turkey"...
Perhaps the most pitiful figures who have appeared before Dr. Carleton Simon ... are those who voluntarily surrender themselves. When they go before him, that are given what is called the 'cold turkey' treatment.
Included was a medical record from the hospital when he had made her go cold turkey, which is dope-addict talk for an all-out cure.
On February 26, 1951 Time magazine article "High & Light" used the phrase, stating:
There is one dimly hopeful side to the teenage dope problem. Unlike older people, few teenagers appear to take to drugs because of psychological troubles; youngsters usually start using narcotics either out of ignorance or the same reckless impulses which lead them to race hot rods. Though they are easier to wean, however, there are almost no facilities for taking care of them. On New York City's Rikers Island, youngsters have to endure the horrors of a sudden "cold turkey" cure or get none at all. Once released, many go right back to drugs again.