‘Cold Turkey’: Definition, Meaning and Examples

By Sophia Merton, updated on June 14, 2023

Did someone say to you 'cold turkey,' and you’re wondering what it means? In this article, we’ll take a look at the meaning, origin, examples, and more.

  • ‘Cold turkey’ is a phrase that means abruptly stopping or quitting a habit, particularly an addiction.
  • It can also be used as an advert to refer to something occurring in a sudden or abrupt manner.

What Does 'Cold Turkey' Mean?

‘Cold turkey’ ultimately has two related meanings, which are:

  • Noun: “The complete and abrupt cessation of taking a substance that one is addicted to.”
  • Adverb: “In an abrupt or sudden manner.”

This phrase is often used to describe the act of stopping or quitting a habit, particularly an addiction, without going through a tapering-off process.

For example:

  • If someone who has been smoking a pack of cigarettes daily wakes up one morning and never smokes another cigarette again, it means they quit ‘cold turkey.’

There is an association between quitting something cold turkey and experiencing unpleasant withdrawal symptoms, such as if an alcoholic abruptly stops drinking.

Though it is most often used to refer to addictive substances and addictions, the phrase can also be used to describe the process of abruptly quitting any habit.

For instance:

  • If you have a bad habit of eating six donuts every morning and then you decide to completely stop and start eating healthier, it would be perfectly appropriate to say that you quit eating donuts ‘cold turkey.’

Where Does This Phrase Come From?

It isn’t entirely clear where the phrase ‘cold turkey’ comes from.

  • One theory has to do with the physical symptoms that individuals will experience when they quit taking an addictive drug abruptly. Some of these symptoms, like tremors, goosebumps, and sweating, could be said to resemble a plucked turkey.
  • Another potential origin of this idiom relates to comparing the unappetizing nature of turkey meat that is cold to the uncomfortable challenge of quitting an addiction without any substitutes or assistance.

Some sources state that the phrase originates from the British satirical magazine Judy. In an issue from January of 1877, a fictional diary is published involving the exploits of a miserly man during the Christmas season. He eventually finds himself at a Christmas dinner where he is served cold, unappetizing turkey, which completely shocks him.

Despite his dissatisfaction, he stays day after day and continues to be served this unpleasant turkey dish. He is so disappointed by the experience that he removes the woman that served him the turkey again and again from his will and testament entirely.

Examples of 'Cold Turkey' In Sentences

How would this phrase be used in a sentence? Let’s take a look at some examples:

  • “John quit smoking cigarettes cold turkey, so he’s going to be lying in bed for the next week.”
  • “You know Jimmy at the office? He quit drinking cold turkey and has been experiencing withdrawals. I guess it was a much worse problem than most of us realized.”
  • “I don’t do any drugs or even drink, but my real vice is fried food. I’m going to need to quit cold turkey because I otherwise can’t control myself.”
  • “After the holidays, I have to quit eating sweets cold turkey.”
  • “I am so naive. I had no idea that Tom was acting that way because he quit his meds cold turkey.”

Other Ways to Say This Idiom

What are some other words, phrases, and idioms that mean to quit something abruptly?

Here are some options:

  • Cut ties
  • Throw in the towel
  • Wash one’s hands of
  • Make a clean break
  • Drop like a hot potato

Final Thoughts About 'Cold Turkey'

If you quit something ‘cold turkey,’ it means that you quit without tapering down or gradually slowing down. This phrase can be used to refer to quitting an addictive substance or it can be used as an adverb to describe something stopping suddenly.

Are you ready to learn more English phrases and expand your vocabulary? Be sure to check out our idioms blog for idioms, expressions, sayings, and more!

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Written By:
Sophia Merton
Sophia Merton is one of the lead freelance writers for WritingTips.org. Sophia received her BA from Vassar College. She is passionate about reading, writing, and the written word. Her goal is to help everyone, whether native English speaker or not, learn how to write and speak with perfect English.

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