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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:
The informal British English "Yank" 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, although less vehemently so as time passes from the American Civil War.
The origin 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 was to become the United States, referring 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, in the following century, used the word in this sense 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 emigrants from Europe; thus a visitor to Richmond, Virginia, in 1818 commented, "The enterprising people are mostly strangers; Scots, Irish, and especially New England men, or Yankees, as they are called").
Many faulty etymologies have been devised for the word, including one by a British officer in 1789 who said it derived from the Cherokee word eankke ("coward"), but no such word exists in the Cherokee language. 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. Linguists, however, do not support any Native American origins.
Most linguists look to Dutch sources, noting the extensive interaction between the colonial Dutch in New Netherland (now largely New York State, New Jersey, Delaware, and western Connecticut) and the colonial English in New England (Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and eastern Connecticut). The Dutch given names Jan ("John") and Kees ("Cornelius") were and still are common and the two sometimes are combined in a single name, e.g., Jan Kees de Jager. The word Yankee is a variation that could have referred to the Dutch Americans.
Michael Quinion and Patrick Hanks argue that the term refers to the Dutch pet name Janneke or Janke ("Johnny"), which – owing to the Dutch pronunciation of J as the English Y – would be Anglicized as "Yankee". Quinion and Hanks posit 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.
H. L. Mencken derived it from the slur "John Cheese", applied by the English colonists to the Dutch – "Here comes a John Cheese" – owing to the importance of their dairy cultivation, which introduced the black-and-white dairy cow from Friesland and North Holland to America in the mid-1600s. The modern Dutch for John Cheese is Jan Kaas but this would be spoken Jan Kees in some dialects.
An early use of the term outside the United States was in the creation of Sam Slick, the "Yankee Clockmaker", in a column in a newspaper in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada, in 1835. The character was a plain-talking American who served to poke fun at Nova Scotian customs of that era, while, initially, trying to urge the old-fashioned Canadians to be as clever and hard-working as Yankees. The character, developed by Thomas Chandler Haliburton, evolved over the years between 1836 and 1844 in a series of publications.
The damned Yankee usage dates from 1812. During and after the American Civil War (1861–65) Confederates popularized it as a derogatory term for their Northern enemies. 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, following the battles of Lexington and Concord, it was broadly adopted by American rebels. Today, "Yankee Doodle" is the official state song of Connecticut.
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. Village life fostered local democracy, best exemplified by the Open Town Meeting form of government which still exists today in parts of 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 an international trade route, stretching to China by 1800. Much of the profit from trading was reinvested in the textile and machine tools industries.
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. As developed in the humor literature of the English-speaking world, the visceral stereotype of the greedy, witch-burning Yankee was 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. In defense, the New Englander embraced the insult, "Yankee". Although the great majority of Yankees gravitated toward the burgeoning cities of the American Northeast, 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 global unity and empire (recall John Lennon's "Imagine" a world without borders). Previously, a New England newspaper called Universal Yankee Nation touted itself as "The greatest paper in all Creation".
In religion, New England Yankees originally followed the Puritan tradition, as expressed in Congregational churches; beginning in the late colonial period, however, many became Episcopalians, Methodists, Baptists, or, later, Unitarians. Strait-laced 17th-century moralism as described 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.
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.
Politically, Yankees, who dominated New England, much of upstate New York, and much of the upper Midwest, were the strongest supporters of the new Republican party in the 1860s. This was especially true for the Congregationalists and Presbyterians among them and (after 1860), the Methodists. 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 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.
By the beginning of the 21st century, systematic Yankee ways had permeated the entire society through education. Although many observers from the 1880s onward predicted that Yankee politicians would be no match for new generations of ethnic politicians, 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, to some observers, by 2004 Democratic presidential nominee Senator John Forbes Kerry, descendant through his mother, of the Scottish Forbes family, which emigrated to Massachusetts the 1750s). President Barack Obama is of Yankee descent on his mother's side; his high school was Punahou School, founded to serve the children of Yankee missionaries to Hawaii.
Within the United States, the term Yankee can have many different 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. The term "WASP", in use since the 1960s, refers to all Protestants of English ancestry, including both Yankees and Southerners, though its meaning is often extended to refer to any Protestant white American.
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 "Yankee" term 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.
In the southern United States, the term is sometimes used in derisive reference to any Northerner, especially one who has migrated to the South; a more polite term is Northerner. 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:
One of Mark Twain's novels, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court, popularized the word as a nickname for residents of Connecticut.
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 English-speaking countries outside the United States, especially in Britain, Australia, Canada, Ireland, and New Zealand, Yankee, almost universally shortened to Yank, is used as a derogatory, playful, or colloquial term for Americans. "Look at Me, I'm Wonderful" by the British Bonzo Dog Band refers to a boastful celeb as driving a "Yankee car".
In the aforementioned Western Commonwealth countries, especially Britain, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, Yank has been in common use since at least World War II, when hundreds of thousands of Americans were stationed in Britain, Australia and New Zealand. Depending on the country, Yankee may be considered mildly derogatory. In Cockney and especially Aussie rhyming slang a Yank is a Septic or Seppo (as in "Septic Tank").
In some parts of the world, particularly in Latin American countries and in East Asia, yankee or yanqui (the same word spelled according to Spanish orthography) is sometimes associated with anti-Americanism and 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, just as in the United Kingdom or other English-speaking countries, the term (yanqui in Spanish spelling) is simply used to refer to someone from the United States, whether colloquially, playfully or derogatively, with no particular emphasis on the latter use. This can also be the case in many countries of Latin America. In Venezuelan Spanish there is 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.
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.
During the Philippine-American War, Filipinos referred to Americans as "yanquis".
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.
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, or more commonly bandaríkjamaður, is used.
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, like 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 India, an ice cream chain with the name Yankee Doodle was popular during the 1980s.
Joshua Slocum, in his 1899 book Sailing Alone Around the World refers to Nova Scotians as being the only or true Yankees. It thus may be implied, as he himself was a Nova Scotian, that he had pride in his ancestry.Yankee in this instance, instead of connoting a form of derision, is therefore a form of praise; perhaps relevant 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.