Green’s Dictionary of Slang

cold turkey n.

[? the image of the pallid flesh of a cold, dead, plucked turkey, and a withdrawing addict; cold turkey is the ‘word of 1922’ in David K. Barnhart and Allan A. Metcalf America in So Many Words (1999)]
(orig. US drugs)

1. sudden and total withdrawal from heroin addiction without tapering off or using any assistance from medication; also ext. to other drugs; attrib. use slightly earlier (see sense 2).

[[US]A. Baer Two and Three 10 Feb. [synd. col.] The Sultan of Cold Turkey has got the bug].
Monthly Bulletin of the Department of Health in the City of New York X 42: 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’; most of them, however, have not the moral courage to do this and carry it through successfully.
[US]N.Y. Times 18 Dec. n.p.: Hitherto there had been but two treatments for the drug addict at the public hospitals; one was called the ‘reduction’ treatment and the other was known among addicts as ‘cold turkey.’.
[UK]F. Tuohy Inside Dope 90: They have come to favour rapid withdrawal or else the still more violent sudden and total denial (called ‘cold turkey’).
[US]D. Maurer ‘Argot of the Und. Narcotic Addict’ Pt 1 in AS XI:2 120/1: cold turkey. Treatment of addicts in institutions where they are taken off drugs suddenly without the ‘tapering off’ which the addict always desires.
[UK]‘Raymond Thorp’ Viper 115: ‘What’s this cold turkey?’ ‘Oh, the cure they tried in the old days [...] it was pure hell.’.
[UK]‘John le Carré’ Honourable Schoolboy 414: I don’t like you to sit on my friend’s head [...] while he catch cold turkey.
[UK]T. Blacker Fixx 151: [of amphetamines] Doing cold turkey, she’d be downright depressing.
[UK]Observer 26 Sept. 11: No heroin, and all the pain centres in the body start almost ‘screaming’. This is cold turkey.
[US]J. Lethem Fortress of Solitude 427: Then there’s you, scrawny freak from the street, ninety pounds once you beat the cold turkey.
[UK]K. Richards Life 322: I can’t imagine what other people think cold turkey is like [...] The whole body just sort of turns itself inside out and rejects itself for three days.

2. attrib. use of sense 1.

Daily Colonist (Victoria, B.C.) 13 Oct. 15/6: Perhaps the most pitiful figures who have appeared before Dr. Carleton Simon...are those who voluntarily surrender themselves. When they go before him, they [i.e. drug addicts] are given what is called the ‘cold turkey’ treatment.
[US]N.Y. Times 18 Dec. n.p.: The ‘cold turkey’ treatment simply means confining the patient and depriving him or her entirely of the drug.
[US]Monteleone Criminal Sl. (rev. edn) 235: the cold turkey cure The drug cure.
[US]Kramer & Karr Teen-Age Gangs 36: They give you the cold-turkey treatment for a while, they offer you a cap, and you blab everything you know.

3. the fundamental level, the basic situation.

[US]Maines & Grant Wise-crack Dict. 7/1: Cold turkey – Definite statement of facts.
[US]C. Coe Me – Gangster 237: I could see he was not afraid of Flop when it came right down to cold turkey.

4. an easy target, a vulnerable person.

[US]E. O’Neill in Bogard & Bryer Sel. Letters (1988) 302: I am sure [the scandal] will be cold turkey for the news boys from now on.
[US]P. Wylie Generation of Vipers 138: All the rest of mankind was cold turkey, to be preyed upon.
[US]T.V. Olsen Hard Men (1974) 242: Angus was cold turkey like the rest.
[US]E. Thompson Garden of Sand (1981) 82: The midge, looking to save something for himself, tried to get her to come on cold turkey like other hookers, no kisses, entombed emotions, wham, bam, thank you ma’am.