The term "Yankee" and its contracted form "Yank" have several interrelated meanings, all referring to people from the United States. Its various senses depend on the scope of context. Most broadly:
- Outside the United States, "Yank" is used informally to refer to any American, including Southerners.
- Within Southern American English, "Yankee" is a derisive term used to refer to any and all Northerners, or those from the regions of the Union side of the American Civil War.
- Elsewhere in the United States, it largely refers to people from the Northeast, but especially those with New England cultural ties, such as descendants from colonial New England settlers, wherever they live. Its sense is more cultural than literally geographical, sometimes emphasizing the Calvinist Puritan Christian beliefs and traditions of the Congregationalists and Presbyterians, who brought their culture when they settled outside of New England. The speech dialect of Eastern New England is called "Yankee" or "Yankee dialect". Within New England itself, the term "Yankee" refers specifically to old-stock New Englanders of English descent.
The informal British and Irish English "Yank" refers to Americans in general. It is especially popular among Britons and Australians and sometimes carries pejorative overtones. The Southern American English "Yankee" is typically uncontracted and at least mildly pejorative.
- 1 Origins and history of the word
- 2 Historic uses
- 3 Yankee Doodle
- 4 Yankee cultural history
- 5 Contemporary uses
- 6 Other uses
- 7 See also
- 8 References
- 9 Further reading
- 10 External links
Origins and history of the word
The root of the term is uncertain. In 1758, British General James Wolfe made the earliest recorded use of the word Yankee to refer to people from what became the United States. He referred to the New England soldiers under his command as Yankees: "I can afford you two companies of Yankees, and the more because they are better for ranging and scouting than either work or vigilance". Later British use of the word often was derogatory, as in a cartoon of 1775 ridiculing "Yankee" soldiers. New Englanders themselves employed the word in a neutral sense; the "Pennamite–Yankee War," for example, was the name given to a series of clashes in 1769 over land titles in Pennsylvania, in which the "Yankees" were the claimants from Connecticut.
The meaning of Yankee has varied over time. In the 18th century, it referred to residents of New England descended from the original English settlers of the region. Mark Twain used the word in this sense the following century in his novel A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court, published in 1889. As early as the 1770s, British people applied the term to any person from what became the United States. In the 19th century, Americans in the southern United States employed the word in reference to Americans from the northern United States, though not to recent immigrants from Europe. Thus, a visitor to Richmond, Virginia commented in 1818, "The enterprising people are mostly strangers; Scots, Irish, and especially New England men, or Yankees, as they are called".
Rejected theories of an American Indian origin
Many faulty etymologies have been devised for the word, including one by a British officer in 1789 who said that it was derived from the Cherokee word eankke ("coward"), but no such word exists in the Cherokee language. Etymologies purporting an origin in languages of the Indians 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. Linguists, however, do not support any Indian origins. James Fenimore Cooper included a non-fiction footnote in The Deerslayer stating, "There can be little doubt that the sobriquet of 'Yankees' is derived from 'Yengees,' the manner in which the tribes nearest to New England pronounced the word 'English.' The change from 'English' to 'Yengees' is very trifling." Fenimore Cooper's suggested etymology is rejected by professional linguists writing for the Merriam-Webster book of word histories, despite his being a prominent writer from the early 1800s and living comparatively close to the time when the word originated.
Most linguists look to Dutch sources, noting the extensive interaction between the colonial Dutch in New Netherland (now largely New York, New Jersey, Delaware, and western Connecticut) and the colonial English in New England (Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and eastern Connecticut). The Online Etymology Dictionary gives its origin as around 1683, when it was applied insultingly to Dutch Americans (especially freebooters) by the English. However, it was at some point reappropriated by Dutch settlers of New Amsterdam who started using it against the English colonists of neighboring Connecticut. Linguist Jan de Vries notes that there was mention of a pirate named Dutch Yanky in the 17th century. The Life and Adventures of Sir Launcelot Greaves (1760) contains the passage, "Haul forward thy chair again, take thy berth, and proceed with thy story in a direct course, without yawing like a Dutch yanky."
Michael Quinion and Patrick Hanks argue that the term refers to the Dutch feminine diminutive name Janneke or masculine diminutive name Janke, which would be Anglicized as "Yankee" due to the Dutch pronunciation of J as the English Y. Quinion and Hanks posit that it was "used as a nickname for a Dutch-speaking American in colonial times" and could have grown to include non-Dutch colonists, as well. Alternatively, the Dutch given names Jan ("John"; pronounced Yan) and Kees ("Cornelius"; pronounced Case) have long been common, and the two are sometimes combined into a single name (e.g., Jan Kees de Jager). Its Anglicized spelling Yankee could, in this way, have been used to mock Dutch Americans. The chosen name Jan Kees may have been partly inspired by a dialectal rendition of Jan Kaas ("John Cheese"), the generic nickname that Flemish people used for Dutch people.
There is also the Dutch jonkheer, a term applied to the younger sons of the nobility who bear no title themselves. It may be translated as "young gentleman" or "esquire" and is the source of the toponym Yonkers; a German cognate is Junker.[original research?]
An early use of the term outside the United States was in the creation of Sam Slick the "Yankee Clockmaker" in a newspaper column in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada in 1835. The character was a plain-speaking American who becomes an example for Nova Scotians to follow in his industry and practicality; and his uncouth manners and vanity were the epitome of qualities that his creator detested. The character was developed by Thomas Chandler Haliburton, and it grew between 1836 and 1844 in a series of publications.
The damned Yankee usage dates from 1812. Confederates popularized it as a derogatory term for their Northern enemies during and after the American Civil War (1861–65). In an old joke, a Southerner alleges, "I was twenty-one years old before I learned that 'damn' and 'Yankee' were separate words". In fact, the spelling "damnyankee" is not uncommon.
It became a catch phrase, often used humorously for Yankees visiting the South, as in the mystery novel Death of a Damn Yankee: A Laura Fleming Mystery (2001) by Toni Kelner. Another popular although facetious saying is that "a Yankee is someone from the North who visits the South. A damn Yankee is one who moves here."
Perhaps the most pervasive influence on the use of the term throughout the years has been the song "Yankee Doodle" which was popular during the American Revolutionary War (1775–83), as it was broadly adopted by American patriots following the battles of Lexington and Concord. The song was popular among the British troops, creating a stereotype of the Yankee simpleton who stuck a feather in his cap and thought that he was stylish. Today, "Yankee Doodle" is the official state song of Connecticut.
Yankee cultural history
The term Yankee now may mean any resident of New England or of any of the Northeastern United States. The original Yankees diffused widely across the northern United States, leaving their imprints in New York, the Upper Midwest, and places as far away as Seattle, San Francisco, and Honolulu. Yankees typically lived in villages consisting of clusters of separate farms. Often they were merchants, bankers, teachers, or professionals. Village life fostered local democracy, best exemplified by the open town meeting form of government which still exists today in New England. Village life also stimulated mutual oversight of moral behavior and emphasized civic virtue. From the New England seaports of Boston, Salem, Providence, and New London, among others, the Yankees built international trade routes, stretching to China by 1800. Much of the profit from trading was reinvested in the textile and machine tools industries.
Yankee ingenuity was a worldwide stereotype of inventiveness, technical solutions to practical problems, "know-how," self-reliance, and individual enterprise. The stereotype first appeared in the 19th century. As Mitchell Wilson notes, "Yankee ingenuity and Yankee git-up-and-go did not exist in colonial days."
The peculiar Yankee became a stock character in standardized comedic venues, especially the widely popular humor magazine Yankee Notions, published in New York City in the years leading up to the American Civil War. The visceral stereotype of the greedy, witch-burning Yankee was developed in the literature of the English-speaking world, epitomized in the character of Brother Jonathan. Burlesques or comedic performances by Yankee impersonators dominated popular theater in the 1800s. The Yankee as an irksome, meddling, and purer-than-thou peddler was a theme appearing in American literature written by Washington Irving (critical of his character Ichabod Crane), James Fenimore Cooper (particularly in his The Chainbearer; Or, The Littlepage Manuscript series), and Nathaniel Hawthorne (author of the Scarlet Letter), a copperhead who sought more Christian compassion for sinners and violators of civil laws and held a strong antipathy toward the Puritans.
In defense, the New Englander embraced the insulting term "Yankee". The great majority of Yankees gravitated toward the burgeoning cities of the American Northeast, while wealthy New Englanders also sent ambassadors to frontier communities where they became influential bankers and newspaper printers. Using their influence in positive ways, they introduced the term "Universal Yankee Nation" to represent and proselytize their hopes for national and global influence.
Arsenic and Old Lace
In 1939, an old Yankee family were featured in the smash Broadway comedy hit Arsenic and Old Lace. The play was later adapted as the Hollywood film Arsenic and Old Lace (shot in 1941, released in 1944). The play was written by Joseph Kesselring, a former music professor at Bethel College, a school of the pacifist Mennonite church. The play appeared at a time of strong isolationist sentiment regarding European affairs.
The play and film depict an old Yankee family a decade before they were tagged as WASPs. The story line tells how the hero Mortimer Brewster (Cary Grant) makes the horrifying discovery that his two beloved maiden aunts are serial murderers of homeless old men. The Brewsters are Yankees who trace the family back to the Mayflower, and the walls of their genteel Brooklyn home are hung with oil portraits of their ancestors. Religion is repeatedly alluded to; one of the murdered old men is identified as having been a Baptist, and a main character is the daughter of the minister of the Congregational church next door, with some scenes taking place in its ancient graveyard.
The Brewsters have delusions of grandeur. Mortimer's brother lives with the two sisters and believes that he is President Theodore Roosevelt. The sisters see themselves as philanthropists who help lonely old men. Wearing old lace, the two kill old men with wine laced with arsenic. The Brewster family is so eminently respectable that the Irish police reject the idea that there could be 13 murder victims buried in the basement.
In the finale, Mortimer Brewster discovers that he was adopted and is not really a Brewster. If he is not a member of the Brewster family, he realizes that he will not become insane or a murderer. In the film's closing scene, he exclaims, "I'm not a Brewster, I'm a son of a sea cook!" as he gleefully takes his new bride on their honeymoon.
Film critic Matthew Gunter argues in a 2012 book that the deep theme of the film is a conflict in American history between the liberty to do anything (which the Brewsters demand) and what Gunter considers America's "bloody hidden past." He notes that the evil disfigured nephew was played by Raymond Massey, who was well known at the time for his portrayal of Abraham Lincoln, but now portrays a disfigured monster. Gunter suggests a link between Lincoln and bloodshed. In the 21st century, the play is staged at dinner theaters, high schools, and colleges.
In religion, New England Yankees originally followed the Puritan tradition, as expressed in Congregational churches. Beginning in the late colonial period, however, many became Presbyterians, Episcopalians, Methodists, Baptists, or, later, Unitarians. Strait-laced 17th-century moralism as derided by novelist Nathaniel Hawthorne faded in the 18th century. The First Great Awakening (under Jonathan Edwards and others) in the mid-18th century and the Second Great Awakening in the early 19th century (under Charles Grandison Finney, among others) emphasized personal piety, revivals, and devotion to civic duty. Theologically, Arminianism replaced the original Calvinism. Horace Bushnell introduced the idea of Christian nurture, through which children would be brought to religion without revivals.
Politics and reform
After 1800, Yankees spearheaded most reform movements, including those for abolition of slavery, temperance in use of alcohol, increase in women's political rights, and improvement in women's education. Emma Willard and Mary Lyon pioneered in the higher education of women, while Yankees comprised most of the reformers who went South during Reconstruction in the late 1860s to educate the Freedmen.
Historian John Buenker has examined the worldview of the Yankee settlers in the Midwest:
Because they arrived first and had a strong sense of community and mission, Yankees were able to transplant New England institutions, values, and mores, altered only by the conditions of frontier life. They established a public culture that emphasized the work ethic, the sanctity of private property, individual responsibility, faith in residential and social mobility, practicality, piety, public order and decorum, reverence for public education, activists, honest, and frugal government, town meeting democracy, and he believed that there was a public interest that transcends particular and stock ambitions. Regarding themselves as the elect and just in a world rife with sin and corruption, they felt a strong moral obligation to define and enforce standards of community and personal behavior…. This pietistic worldview was substantially shared by British, Scandinavian, Swiss, English-Canadian and Dutch Reformed immigrants, as well as by German Protestants and many of the Forty-Eighters.
Yankees dominated New England, much of upstate New York, and much of the upper Midwest, and were the strongest supporters of the new Republican party in the 1860s. This was especially true for the Congregationalists, Presbyterians, and (after 1860) the Methodists among them. A study of 65 predominantly Yankee counties showed that they voted only 40% for the Whigs in 1848 and 1852, but became 61–65% Republican in presidential elections of 1856 through 1864.
President Calvin Coolidge was a striking example of the modern Yankee stereotype. Coolidge moved from rural Vermont to urban Massachusetts and was educated at elite Amherst College. Yet his flint-faced, unprepossessing ways and terse rural speech proved politically attractive. "That Yankee twang will be worth a hundred thousand votes", explained one Republican leader. Coolidge's laconic ways and dry humor were characteristic of stereotypical rural "Yankee humor" at the turn of the 20th century.
The fictional Harvard graduate Thurston Howell III of Gilligan's Island typifies the old Yankee elite in a comical way; the Boston-born M*A*S*H surgeon character Maj. Charles Emerson Winchester III was more satirical, portrayed by David Ogden Stiers.
By the beginning of the 21st century, systematic Yankee ways had permeated the entire society through education. Many observers from the 1880s onward predicted that Yankee politicians would be no match for the new generations of ethnic politicians, yet the presence of Yankees at the top tier of modern American politics was typified by presidents George H. W. Bush and George W. Bush, and former Democratic National Committee chairman Howard Dean, as well as losing 2004 Democratic presidential nominee John Forbes Kerry, descendant through his mother of the Scottish Forbes family, which emigrated to Massachusetts in the 1750s.
In the United States
The term Yankee can have many different meanings within the United States that are contextually and geographically dependent meanings.
Traditionally, Yankee was most often used to refer to a New Englander descended from the original settlers of the region (thus often suggesting Puritanism and thrifty values). By the mid-20th century, some speakers applied the word to any American born north of the Mason–Dixon Line, though usually with a specific focus still on New England. New England Yankee might be used to differentiate. However, within New England itself, the term still refers more specifically to old-stock New Englanders of English descent. For example:
- "Certainly the Irish have for years complained of Yankee discrimination against them."
- —William F. Whyte
- "There were no civil rights groups then. Even the Federal Government was controlled by bigoted Yankees and Irish who banded together against the Italian immigrant."
- —Fred Langone
- "The one anomaly of this era was the election of Yankee Republican Leverett Saltonstall as governor in 1938, and even then Saltonstall jokingly attributed his high vote totals in Irish districts to his 'South Boston face'."
- —Stephen Puleo
In the southern United States, the term is used in derisive reference to any Northerner, especially one who has migrated to the South. Senator J. William Fulbright of Arkansas pointed out as late as 1966, "The very word 'Yankee' still wakens in Southern minds historical memories of defeat and humiliation, of the burning of Atlanta and Sherman's march to the sea, or of an ancestral farmhouse burned by Cantrill's raiders". Ambrose Bierce defines the term in The Devil's Dictionary as: "n. In Europe, an American. In the Northern States of our Union, a New Englander. In the Southern States the word is unknown. (See DAMNYANK.)"
- To foreigners, a Yankee is an American.
- To Americans, a Yankee is a Northerner.
- To Northerners, a Yankee is an Easterner.
- To Easterners, a Yankee is a New Englander.
- To New Englanders, a Yankee is a Vermonter.
- And in Vermont, a Yankee is somebody who eats pie for breakfast.
Major League Baseball's New York Yankees acquired the name from journalists after it moved from Baltimore in 1903 (though they were officially known as the Highlanders until 1913). The regional sports rivalry between the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox can make the utterance of the term "Yankee" unwelcome to some fans in New England, especially to the most dedicated Red Sox fans living in the northeastern United States.
The term Swamp Yankee is sometimes used in rural Rhode Island, Connecticut, and southeastern Massachusetts to refer to Protestant farmers of moderate means and their descendants (in contrast to richer or urban Yankees); "swamp Yankee" is often regarded as a derogatory term. Scholars note that the famous Yankee "twang" survives mainly in the hill towns of interior New England, though it is disappearing even there. The most characteristic Yankee food was pie; Yankee author Harriet Beecher Stowe in her novel Oldtown Folks celebrated the social traditions surrounding the Yankee pie.
Mark Twain's novel A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court popularized the word as a nickname for residents of Connecticut. Appropriately, the State of Connecticut's Air National Guard unit 103d Airlift Wing is nicknamed "The Flying Yankees."
The title of the 1955 musical Damn Yankees refers specifically to the New York Yankees baseball team but also echoes the older cultural term. Similarly, a book about the ball club echoes the title of the Holmes film: The Magnificent Yankees.
In other English-speaking countries
In Britain, Australia, Canada, Ireland, and New Zealand, Yankee, almost universally shortened to Yank, is used as a derogatory, pejorative, playful, or colloquial term for Americans.
In other parts of the world
Yankee or yanqui (the same word spelled according to Spanish orthography) is sometimes associated with anti-Americanism in some parts of the world, particularly in Latin American countries and in East Asia, and is used in expressions such as "Yankee go home" or "we struggle against the yanqui, enemy of mankind" (words from the Sandinista anthem). In Spain, however, the term yanqui is simply used to refer to someone from the United States, just as it is in the United Kingdom or other English-speaking countries, whether colloquially, playfully, or derogatively, with no particular emphasis on the derogative use. This is the case of the use of ianque in the Portuguese-speaking countries and can also be the case of many countries in Spanish-speaking Latin America. Venezuelan Spanish has the word pitiyanqui, derived c. 1940 around the oil industry from petty yankee or petit yanqui, a derogatory term for those who profess an exaggerated and often ridiculous admiration for anything from the United States.
During the Philippine–American War, Filipinos also referred to Americans as "yanquis", borrowing the Spanish term.
In the late 19th century, the Japanese were called "the Yankees of the East" in praise of their industriousness and drive to modernization. In Japan since the late 1970s, the term Yankī has been used to refer to a type of delinquent youth.
In Finland, the word jenkki (yank) is sometimes used to refer to any U.S. citizen, and with the same group of people Jenkkilä (Yankeeland) refers to the United States itself. It is not considered offensive or anti-U.S., but rather a colloquial expression. However, more commonly a U.S. citizen is called amerikkalainen ("American") or yhdysvaltalainen ("United Statesian") and the country itself Amerikka or Yhdysvallat. Jenkki is the most popular brand of chewing gum in Finland, introduced in 1951 by a Finnish company but marketed with American pop culture imagery.
In Iceland, the word kani is used for Yankee or Yank in the mildly derogatory sense. When referring to residents of the United States, norðurríkjamaður is use, or more commonly bandaríkjamaður.
In Polish, the word jankes can refer to any U.S. citizen, has little pejorative connotation if at all, and its use is somewhat obscure (it is mainly used to translate the English word Yankee in a less formal context, such as in Civil War movies).
In Sweden, the word is translated to jänkare. The word is not itself a negative expression, though it can of course be used as such depending on context. When a Swedish person uses the word jänkare, it usually refers to cars from the United States, but could also be used as a slang term for any U.S. citizen.
In Hungarian, the word "jenki" (pronounced like "Yenkie") is a slang term to Americans in general (or white American individuals) and carries no pejorative connotation.
In India, an ice cream chain with the name Yankee Doodle was popular during the 1980s.
In Indonesia, the term Jengki style (local spelling of "Yankee") is a term for post-war Modernist houses popular there. It is so called because of its heavy influence from the American Mid-century modern architecture.
Joshua Slocum refers in his 1899 book Sailing Alone Around the World to Nova Scotians as being the only true Yankees. It thus may be inferred, as he himself was a Nova Scotian, that he had pride in his ancestry. Yankee, in this instance, is a form of praise instead of connoting a form of derision, perhaps referring to the hardy seagoing people of the East Coast at that time.
Yankee is the code word for the letter "Y" in the NATO phonetic alphabet.
In the Paradox video game Victoria 2, Yankee is a North American Culture
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- Schell, Ruth. "Swamp Yankee", American Speech, 1963, Volume 38, No.2 pg. 121–123. in JSTOR
- Sonneck, Oscar G. Report on "the Star-Spangled Banner" "Hail Columbia" "America" "Yankee Doodle" (1909) pp 83ff online
- Stollznow, Karen. 2006. "Key Words in the Discourse of Discrimination: A Semantic Analysis. PhD Dissertation: University of New England., Chapter 5.
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