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In the opening chapter of Thomas Hardy's "The Withered Arm", the following passage is found (emphasis mine):

The discussion waxed so warm that the purr of the milk streams became jerky, till a voice from another cow's belly cried with authority, "Now then, what the Turk do it matter to us about Farmer Lodge's age, or Farmer Lodge's new mis'ess? I shall have to pay him nine pound a year for the rent of every one of these milchers, whatever his age or hers. Get on with your work, or 'twill be dark afore we have done. The evening is pinking in a'ready." This speaker was the dairyman himself, by whom the milkmaids and men were employed.

What is the meaning of this phrase? It seems like "Turk" is being used as an oath, in the same way we might say "what the hell" or other profanities. Was this phrase commonly used (in rural England) at the time this story was written? Does it suggest some view of Turks among the English people, or is it a bowdlerism of something else, or what? Searching the web for "what the Turk" didn't give any useful results, simply places where these three words appeared together naturally.

There are some typos / OCR errors in the version of the story that I've linked above (such as "homeward-hound" at the start of Chapter 2), but I've checked the Project Gutenberg version and it also has "what the Turk" and the correct "homeward-bound".

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There are a couple of other occurrences in Hardy of “Turk” as an imprecation or mild oath.

‘Come to that, is it? Turk! won't thy mother be in a taking! Well, she's ready, I don't doubt?’

Thomas Hardy (1872). Under the Greenwood Tree; a Rural Painting of the Dutch School, volume II, p. 19. London: Tinsley Brothers.

‘Well, why shouldn't the man hang up her birdcage? Turk seize it all, what’s that got to do wi’ it? Dick, that thou beest a white-lyvered chap I don't say, but if thou beestn’t as mad as a cappel-faced bull, let me smile no more.’

Hardy, p. 23.

Ulla Baugner wrote that although there are many south-west dialect words recorded only by Hardy, nonetheless he is considered a trustworthy source, who “regarded dialect with great seriousness”. She commented:

The use of turk in imprecations is not recorded by E[nglish] D[ialect] D[ictionary] or O[xford] E[nglish] D[ictionary], but according to N[otes] & Q[ueries] 1936 similar expressions are current in So[merset].

Ulla Baugner (1972) A Study on the Use of Dialect in Thomas Hardy's Novels and Short Stories with Special Reference to Phonology and Vocabulary. Stockholm University.

The reference in Notes and Queries is this:

Turk. Used in mild oaths. “Why, what the Turk have ’ee got there!”

W. W. Gill (1936). ‘A Glossary of Somerset Dialect’. Notes and Queries, 21 March 1936, p. 202.

Neither of these sources presents a theory as to the origin of the term. The assonance with “fuck” suggests that it might have originated as a minced oath, but perhaps there was an influence from another dialect sense of “turk” meaning “a great amount”. This appears twice in Hardy:

‘Owing to your coming a day sooner than we first expected,’ said John, ‘you'll find us in a turk of a mess, sir’

Thomas Hardy (1873). A Pair of Blue Eyes, volume II, p. 210. London: Tinsley Brothers.

“My mis’ess out yonder,” replied the rural landlord, nodding sideways, “is coming home with her fancy-man. They have been a-gaying together this turk of a while in foreign parts.”

Thomas Hardy (1881). A Laodicean; or, The Castle of the De Stancys, volume III, p. 245. London: Sampson Low.

Ralph Elliott comments on this sense of the word:

Turks were considered to be cruel and savage, a hangover from the Middle Ages, so that the word came to denote anyone or anything big and formidable.

Ralph W. V. Elliott (1984). Thomas Hardy’s English, p. 229. Basil Blackwell.

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  • "turk" as "a great amount" could also be the same minced oath, no?
    – verbose
    Jan 17 at 2:12

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