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The Evolution of the Word "Yankee" and the Fourth of July Holiday

Originally a Dutch word, "Yankee" has strong ties to Connecticut and to patriotism.

Although the term “Yankee” in its most general sense refers to anyone from the North, the term has its roots most closely associated with Connecticut. To Mark Twain, a resident of Connecticut was the “Yankee of all Yankees.” The term probably derives from the Dutch word “jankin,” a derogatory name given by the Dutch settlers of New York to describe the English settlers of their next-door neighbors in Connecticut whenever their paths crossed. Since the letter “J” in Dutch is pronounced like a “Y” in English, the Dutch word soon degenerated into “Yankee,” and a new word was born.

The Pennamite-Yankee War of 1769 pit residents of Pennsylvania against residents of Connecticut in a series of under-publicized clashes—often extremely violent—regarding boundary disputes and land claims in Pennsylvania. Here, the term “Yankee” specifically refers to people from Connecticut. In fact, the most pervasive use of “Yankee” occurs in the famous Revolutionary War song “Yankee Doodle”—popularly adopted by soldiers after Lexington and Concord. Most appropriately, “Yankee Doodle” happens to be the official state song of Connecticut.

The lyrics of “Yankee Doodle” date back to the French and Indian War and a British doctor named Richard Shuckburgh, who allegedly wrote them to mock the appearance of American colonial troops. Specifically, the troops that the lyrics mocked were under the command of Colonel Thomas Fitch, Jr., son of the then governor of Connecticut who had the same name. The first verse, known by heart by millions of Americans, goes like this:

            Yankee Doodle went to town,

            Riding on a pony;

            He stuck a feather in his hat,

            And called it macaroni.

“Doodle” is thought to derive from the German “dudel” and is associated with the word “fool.” “Macaroni” is not to be thought of in the contemporary sense as food but in the British mid 19th century sense as a person who dressed in an outlandishly fashionable manner to impress others. The idea here is that by sticking a feather in his cap the unsophisticated Yankee thinks he would be fashionable. Clearly, the British intent here is to mock the unsophisticated colonials. Interestingly, the Americans soon adopted the song as a patriotic expression to be proud of shortly after the opening clashes at Lexington and Concord. Furthermore, perhaps the most famous painting of the Revolutionary War, entitled “The Spirit of ’76,” is referred to in a shorthanded way as “Yankee Doodle.” It famously depicts 3 Revolutionary War soldiers –2 drummers and a fifer-- with an American flag over their heads. The oil painting by Archibald MacNeal Willard hangs today in the US Department of State (see photo).

Another tie-in with the Fourth of July is the famous song entitled “I’m a Yankee Doodle Dandy” from the 1904 Broadway musical by George M. Cohan called “Little Johnny Jones.” The famous chorus for the song goes like this:

            I’m a Yankee Doodle Dandy

            A Yankee Doodle, do or die;

            A real live nephew of my Uncle Sam’s

            Born on the Fourth of July.

Jimmy Cagney sings the song in the 1942 movie of the same name. Ron Kovic’s popular autobiography about the Vietnam War --Born on the Fourth of July –derives its title from the fourth line (most appropriately) of the chorus.

The word “Yankee” has many meanings. To a contemporary Brit, a “Yank” is any American. To a Southerner, a “Yankee” is a pejorative term for a Northerner. To soldiers in World War I, a “Yankee” was a member of the “Yankee Division,” the famous 26th Division made up almost entirely of men from New England. A “Yankee” can also be a member of a storied professional baseball team. When the term first appeared, however, a “Yankee”  meant someone from Connecticut. Its meaning has since expanded to refer to anyone from the Northeast; moreover, “Yankee” has become associated strongly with patriotic songs and a famous Revolutionary War painting. Thus, the connection between “Yankee” and the July 4th holiday has a long and strong tradition, especially for Connecticut residents.

Notes, Sources, and Links:

  1. Voice of America, the federal government’s official radio broadcast, begins and ends with the playing of “Yankee Doodle.
  2. A June 17th showed that Connecticut is indeed a “Yankee” state, as the NY Yankees outpolled the Boston Red Sox as the Nutmeg state’s favorite team 43 percent to 38 percent.
  3. The Yankees of Connecticut by W. Storrs Lee (1957).
  4. Connecticut made “Yankee Doodle” its official state song in 1978.
  5. To see Jimmy Cagney sing “Yankee Doodle Dandy,” click below: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2R1jiVcIGcg

 

 

 

Philip R. Devlin June 28, 2011 at 07:07 PM
Here's what the Merriam Webster Dictionary says regarding the word's origins from American Indians: "Etymologies purporting an origin in languages of the aboriginal inhabitants of the United States are not well received by linguists. One such surmises that the word is borrowed from the Wyandot (called Huron by the French) pronunciation of the French l'anglais (meaning "the Englishman" or "the English (language)"), sounded as Y'an-gee. Writing in 1819, the Rev. John Heckewelder stated his belief that the name grew out of the attempts by Native Americans to pronounce the word English. The U.S. novelist James Fenimore Cooper supported this view in his 1841 book The Deerslayer. Linguists, however, do not support any Indian origins." Most linguists believe in the Dutch origin of the word. I stand by the statement. Note that the 1st paragraph says "probably derived" because no one knows for sure;the Oxford English Dictionary says its ultimate origin is" unascertainable" though it too leans heavily toward the Dutch explanation and against any source from an American Indian language
elgin crittenden June 28, 2011 at 09:25 PM
Well researched and interesting piece. Linguistic research clearly shows that the Dutch origins of the word are the most likely explanation of its origin. To suggest that it originated from any American Indian language is nothing but pure balderdash!
David A. Moore June 29, 2011 at 03:44 AM
I've been interested in the origin of Yankee for a long time. Some say Dutch for John Cheese. In a big old Dictionary the British word yank means to complain or, pardon my English, to bitch. Yankee may derive from the English calling us bitches or whiners or complainers. Spanish speakers call me David, but it comes out Daybeez. This could support an Indian linguistic problem too. Will we ever know the truth?
Susan Dean June 29, 2011 at 01:57 PM
Thank you Phil for another gem! You make coming to this site a pleasure!
Jeffry Muthersbaugh July 02, 2011 at 01:36 PM
Fascinating and interesting history. I wish we had known this history last year. We had a journalist from Germany staying with us and he was doing a story for German radio on the meaning of "Yankee". It would have been great to give him this background. Jeff Muthersbaugh The Nehemiah Brainerd House B&B

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