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.


About hughrawson

Hugh Rawson has been in involved in the book, magazine, and newspaper businesses all his working life. Among other things, he served as director of Penguin USA’s reference books operation, edited the Bulletin of The Authors Guild, wrote a column about American words and phrases for American Heritage magazine, and assisted William Safire on the last edition of Safire’s Political Dictionary. His book titles include Rawson’s Dictionary of Euphemisms & Other Doubletalk; Wicked Words, which is the opposite of Euphemisms in that it tells you everything you might want to know about so-called “bad” words, and Devious Derivations, a book about folk etymologies. He also is the author of Unwritten Laws: The Unofficial Rules of Life as Handed Down by Murphy and other Sages and he co-authored with Hillier Krieghbaum An Investment in Knowledge, a history-study of a National Science Foundation program for training teachers of science and mathematics. Rawson has collaborated with his wife, Margaret Miner, on four dictionaries of quotations: The Oxford Dictionary of American Quotations, The New International Dictionary of Quotations, A Dictionary of Quotations from the Bible, and A Dictionary of Quotations from Shakespeare. He also writes a blog, focusing mainly on language, for The Huffington Post.
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