Damn Yankees

As the baseball season opens, I am reminded that last time I visited Paris, I left my Boston Red Sox cap at home, not wanting to look too much like a tourist. Imagine my surprise, then, at seeing more baseball caps than berets along the Seine, most of them New York Yankee caps, and many of them on French heads. The damned Yankees seemed to be winning everywhere!
As it happens, the word Yankee is connected intimately with American history. Popularized initially as a term of disparagement for New Englanders, it was applied by Southerners to all Northerners during the Civil War, and finally became attached to Americans generally, as in “The Yanks are coming,” and less happily, “Yankee go home.”
The origin of Yankee has been much debated. Some have claimed that it comes from the Cherokee eankke, meaning “slave” or “coward”; others that it derives from Yengees or Yenkees, supposed mispronunciations by Native Americans of English or Anglais. And these are just a few of the guesses that have been made.
The earliest written examples, dating to the 1680s, refer to pirates in West Indies, “Yankey Duch,” “Captain Yankey,” and, possibly the same commander, “John Williams (Yankey).” Most likely, the term is of Dutch extraction, coming either from Janke, Little John, or Jan Kees, a diminutive of John Cornelius and also a variant of Jan Kaas, John Cheese. In neither case would a compliment have been intended, since diminutives of personal names often are employed derisively, e.g., biddy, from Bridget, for an Irish maid; Heinie, from Heinrich, for a German, or Ike, from Isaac, for a Jew, while an allusion to the cheese-eating for the Dutch would fit neatly into the lexicon of international culinary insult, e.g., the English limey, the French frog, and the German kraut, among many others. You are what you eat, at least according to your enemies.
Yankee was used mainly in derisive or contemptuous contexts for most of the eighteenth century. Dutch inhabitants of New York referred to English settlers in Connecticut as damn Yankees (anticipating Confederate usage by several generations) and complained about their sharp-dealing Yankee tricks. New England was also known as Yankee-land and the verb, to yankee, meant to cheat or defraud.
From the time of the French and Indian War (1755-63), if not before, the British often disparaged colonials as Yankeys and Yankey Doodles (doodle being slang of the period for a dolt or silly fellow as well as a child’s penis). In 1758, General James Wolfe, after noting in a letter that he could afford to give the recipient “two companies of Yankees,” suggested that they would not be of much help: “The Americans are in general the dirtiest most contemptible cowardly dogs that you can conceive. There is no depending on them in action. They fall down dead in their own dirt and desert in battalions, officers and all.”
British military bands also played the “Yankee Doodle Dandy” tune as a way of taunting the locals. After a Boston man was tarred and feathered in March of 1775, British fifers played “Yankee Doodle” as he was paraded around town. And the next month, on April 19, a brigade of Redcoats marched to this tune while on their way to reinforce the troops that had been sent to Lexington and Concord to seize munitions stored by the colonials.
That day proved to be a turning point in Yankee’s history. The return trip to Boston was harrowing for the British. Minutemen converged upon the road to Boston, subjecting the Redcoats to practically continuous fire. Almost immediately, the rebels adopted “Yankee Doodle” for themselves, turning it back upon the British. They proudly identified themselves as Yankees, and British bands stopped playing the jaunty air. As the Pennsylvania Evening Post reported that summer: “General Gage’s troops are much dispirited . . . and . . . disposed to leave off dancing any more to the tune of Yankee Doodle.” Yankee was no longer a “bad” word. Suddenly it became a “good” one.
Nevertheless, I am keeping my Red Sox cap, and perhaps I will flaunt it at all those “good” Yankee caps next time I visit Paris.

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It’s All O.K.


            It seems fitting to start a new blog on language with a look at the greatest contribution of American English to international discourse: the word O.K., also rendered as  OK, o.k., ok, okay, and sometimes even as okeh. In whatever form, this expression of assent,  approval, or correctness is understood nearly everywhere around the globe, from Afghanistan to Japan to Zimbabwe.

            O.K.  is remarkably versatile.  It can be employed as a noun (“Will you give this memo your O.K.?”), as an adjective (“It’s an O.K. memo.”), as an adverb (“It reads O.K.”), as a verb (“So I will O.K. it for you.”), or as an interjection (“O.K.! Forget about the memo.”). Depending on context, O.K. can denote positive endorsement (“Congress O.K.’d the treaty.”) or mere acceptance of the status quo (“I’m O.K. with that.”). The expression also is remarkably mutable, having evolved into such forms as oke, okey-dokey, okle-dokle, and A-OK (the last popularized in 1961 when American astronaut Alan Shepard reported the safe splashdown of his Mercury capsule in the Atlantic: “Everything’s A-OK – dye marker out.”)

             O.K. first appeared in print in American newspapers in the late 1830s, but for many years no one knew exactly what the abbreviation stood for or how it arose. A great many theories were proposed, mainly by amateur, or folk, etymologists. Some supposed that O.K. came from other languages, either from a Choctaw Indian term, hoke or okeh, meaning “it is so,” from the Mandingo oke, “certainly,”  from the Scottish och aye,  “oh, yes,” or, a longer but more provocative stretch, from the French aux quais, “at the quays,” referring to the places in colonial ports where French sailors arranged to meet shady ladies during the American Revolution. Others theorized that the expression came from the initials of an individual. Among the candidates:  A Fox chief, Old Keokuk; a railroad freight agent, Obadiah Kelly, and a supplier of crackers to Union troops during the Civil War, Orrin Kendall. 

            The two most popular theories for a long time traced O.K. to either of two presidents:  Andrew Jackson, who supposedly used it on legal documents as an abbreviation for “Oll Korrect” (or “Ole Kurreck” or “Orl Kerrect”), and Jackson’s successor, Martin Van Buren, who was nicknamed “Old Kinderhook” because he came from Kinderhook, N.Y.   Arguing for the first theory, Jackson was not a good speller, and perfectly capable of rendering his own name four ways on the same page. As for the second, Van Buren’s supporters in New York organized a Democratic O.K. Club and used “O.K.” as their rallying cry during his losing bid for re-election in 1840. (His opponents claimed that O.K. stood for “Out of Kash, Out of Kredit, Our of Karacter, and Out of Klothes.”)

            Neither of the presidential theories was right, but both glanced up against the truth, as  Columbia professor Allen Walker Read revealed in a magisterial series of five articles in American Speech, the journal of the American Dialectical Society, in 1963 and 1964. Read found that O.K. first appeared in print in Boston newspapers in 1839 as an abbreviation for “Oll (or “Orl”) Korrect,” then spread to other cities, including New York, where it was reinforced by the convergence with O.K. for “Old Kinderhook.”  The original O.K. was part of fad for humorous misspellings and abbreviations. Similar coinages that appeared in newspapers of the time included O.W. for “Oll Wright” (“All Right”); K.G., “No Good”; K.Y., “No Use,” and the more elaborate O.K.K.B.W.P., “One Kind Kiss Before We Part.”           

            A couple of other remnants of this fad are still encountered from time to time: N.G., “No Good,” and P.D.Q., “Pretty Damn Quick,” but O.K. has shown by far the most staying power. If one has to make a choice, based on its versatility, adaptability, and adoption around the world, O.K. has a good claim to being hailed as The Great American Word. 


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