Skip to main content

Why Do We Say That?

May 2024
1min read


The word Yankee is bound up intimately with American history, starting life as a term of disparagement, especially for New Englanders, before becoming a synonym for American , as in “the Yanks are coming” or—after they’ve gotten there and finished the fighting—“Yankee go home.”

Yankee has been dated to 1683. The earliest references are to “Yankee Duch” and “Captain Yankey,” two Dutch pirates (or possibly the same one) in the West Indies. A century later Dutch farmers in New York complained about sharp-dealing traders in Connecticut and their “Yankee tricks.”

They also used yankee as a verb meaning “to cheat,” and as early as 1798 they described their neighbors to the immediate northeast as “damn Yankees,” thus anticipating American Southern usage by several generations.

The British, meanwhile, employed Yankey or Yankey Doodle as derisive terms for New Englanders from the time of the French and Indian War. British military bands mocked the colonials by playing “Yankee Doodle,” and the brigade that was sent to reinforce the expedition to Lexington and Concord on April 19, 1775, marched to the tune. But the despised Yankee Doodles made the redcoats high-step it back to Boston, keeping them under fire almost all the way. The rebels took the tune as their trophy, put their own words to it, and proudly anointed themselves “Yankees.” Within a space of a single day, Yankee had metamorphosed from a bad word into a good one. “General Gage’s troops are much dispirited … disposed to leave off dancing any more the tune of Yankee Doodle,” reported the Pennsylvania Evening Post on July 22.

Americans puzzled over the origins of this nickname they had adopted for themselves. Many guessed that it represented a Native American form of English or Anglais . For example, James Fenimore Cooper asserted in The Deerslayer that it derived from a native pronunciation of English as Yengeese . Washington Irvine suggested that it came from an Indian word for the settlers, yanokies , meaning “silent men.” (Irving was making a joke, but many people took him seriously.) Other proposed sources included the English dialect term jank (excrement), the Scottish yankie (a smart, forward woman), and the Swedish änka (a widow). Modern etymologists prefer simpler explanations, however, and look to a Dutch source, either Jan Kees (“John Cheese,” comparable to the British John Bull) or Janke (“Little John”), with the former perhaps a shade the more likely of the two.

Hugh Rawson

We hope you enjoy our work.

Please support this magazine of trusted historical writing, now in its 75th year, and the volunteers that sustain it with a donation to American Heritage.