December 1, 1999
I have heard a variety of stories about the origins of the word "Yankee" but none I find convincing (my husband tells me it's related to the Yangtze River in China, for example). None of my dictionaries even attempt to explain it. I'm guessing it has some American Indian origin. Any ideas?
There are indeed a variety of stories about Yankee, but the Yangtze River connection is a new one.
Among the myriad theories are several involving American Indian origins. It has been suggested that Yankee came from the Cherokee word eankke, 'slave, coward' , or from the name of a tribe of Massachusetts Indians, the Yankoos, 'invincible ones'.
The most persistent theory in the 19th century originated with the Rev. John Heckewelder in 1819. He wrote that Yankee resulted from the American Indians' attempts to pronounce the word English. James Fenimore Cooper was a proponent of this theory and referred to it in The Deerslayer in 1841.
In Knickerbocker's History of New York (1809) Washington Irving wrote that Yankee came from a Mais-Tschusaeg (Massachusetts) word yanokies, 'silent men'. Irving was joking, but some people took him seriously.
Another hoax appeared in the Monthly Review and Boston Anthology in 1810 in a letter that was supposedly written by Noah Webster. It claimed that Yankee came from a Persian word jenghe, 'warlike man or swift horse' and that Genghis Khan meant 'Yankee King'. The piece was actually making fun of Webster's writings on etymology, but not everyone got the joke.
The word Yankee first appeared in the 17th century when it was used as a nickname in connection with Dutch pirates in the West Indies: "Yankee Duch," "Captain Yankey," and "the pirates Yanky and Jacob." In 1725 the word appeared as a personal name in an estate inventory: "one negroe man named Yankee." Most scholars now believe that Yankee comes from Dutch although there is disagreement about which Dutch word is the source.
Random House Webster's College Dictionary suggests that Yankee comes from Jan Kees (or Jan Kaas), 'John Cheese', a nickname for the Dutch. The -s at the end sounded like a plural to English speakers and was dropped. Proponents of this theory believe that the name was first applied to Dutch pirates by the English and later used by the New York Dutch for their Connecticut neighbors. H.L. Mencken favored this explanation, noting that the New Englanders' "commercial enterprise outran their scruples."
The other popular theory, favored by the OED, is that Yankee comes from Dutch Janke (or possibly Jantje), 'Little John', the diminutive of Jan, which was used as a derisive nickname by either the English or the Dutch in the New England states.
The earliest recorded use of Yankee as a term for Americans is in a 1758 letter by General James Wolfe (of Battle of Quebec fame) in which he used the word pejoratively of the American troops assigned to him. In 1775 the British troops used Yankee as a derogatory term for the citizens of Boston. The song Yankee Doodle Dandy was played by the British on their 1775 march to Concord as an insult to the Americans (the original lyrics were bawdy -- "doodle" was a slang word for 'dolt' or 'penis'). After the battles at Lexington and Concord, the Americans adopted the song as their own and taunted the retreating British with it. Yankee thus began to acquire a complimentary sense. The version of the song that we know dates from 1776.
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