Saturday, October 15, 2011

What is a Yankee?

Only occasionally in my life have I ever been called a Yankee or a Yank by people or relatives from the south of the United States or from outside of the US. Every time the slang word was used in a derogatory (though a mostly joking) type of way. I was never particularly insulted by its use in my direction. In fact, I was far more insulted by a European relative referring to modern New England as “the colonies.” Hello, Declaration of Independence!! In truth, I sometimes wish I were a little more Yankee. I picture those tough as nails New Englanders as being somewhat like Quint from Jaws. Man, I wish I were more like Quint. However, whenever I heard the term I wondered, what did Yankee actually mean and was I actually a Yankee? As it turns out, like with most things in history, the answers to these questions are not absolutely clear and they largely depend on perspective and context.

First, the origin of the word Yankee is remarkably unclear for such a heavily used term. Today, most people understand that the word refers to someone from either the United States or more accurately New England. Traditionally, it specifically refers to the old stock white, English, Protestant settlers of the New England area. The classic W.A.S.P.s if you will. However, this was not always the case. The word seems to appear in writing as early as the 1680’s. Although it eventually came to represent Americans or New Englanders, when it first appeared it seems to have represented neither. In the Calendar of State Papers, Colonial Series the term is used several times between 1680 and 1687 as a nickname for individual people who were not necessarily American colonists. Nor were these people necessarily white. In 1775, the name Yankee is even recorded in the inventory of a Carolina slave owner as being the name of one of his slaves.

However, all these early references are pretty far removed from the current use of Yankee. The historic record does not show the use of the word Yankee in reference to an American or New Englander until at least 1758. During this time the New England colonies were deeply involved in the French and Indian War. Apparently a British General named James Wolfe wrote about the New Englanders under his command during the war. He used the term Yankees to refer to them. Wolfe is quoted as writing:
"My posts are now so fortified that I can afford you two companies of Yankees, and the more because they are better for ranging and scouting than either work or vigilance."
 Though I searched, I could find no trace of this letter, at least digitally. However, James Wolfe was absolutely a real General during the French and Indian War. He is most well known for leading the army which captured Quebec from the French, although he was killed in the battle. In addition, the sentiment he expresses about his New England soldiers was probably true. The New Englanders under the command of professional British soldiers would have seemed to have had very little formal military training. Each colony did keep a militia, but each militia drilled and trained in their own fashion, if they drilled and trained at all. If General Wolfe did observe this about his Yankee troops, he was probably seeing the same thing many British would come to see during the Revolution; farmers more used to shooting rabbits than people, and men more used to slopping through marsh and wood than lining up on the battlefield.

A second quote using the term Yankee to refer to New Englanders appears in the 1765 poem Oppression, a Poem by and American. This section of poetry reads:

“From meanness first this Portsmouth Yankey rose.
And still to meanness, all his conduct flows”
In addition, the author notes,
'"Portsmouth Yankey,” It seems, our hero being a New-Englander by birth, has a right to the epithet of Yankey; a name of derision, I have been informed, given by the Southern people on the Continent, to those of New-England: what meaning there is in the word, I never could learn.'
So, at least as early as 1765, the term Yankee was used in reference to a New Englander. At that time, as now, it was generally meant to be an insult. To the British, Yankees were provincial country hicks who apparently would stick a feather in their cap and think it was the height of fashion. However, Americans would later claim the term as their own during the Revolution, using the formally insulting song, “Yankee Doodle” to inspire a sorely needed sense of nationalism. Yet, to Southerners, Northern Yankees may have seemed like urbanite, over educated, common sense lacking, know-it-alls in comparison to the more agricultural Southerners. 

Still, the exact origin of the word Yankee is unclear. Yes, it was a nickname, but this does not answer the question of what it actually means or even where it originally came from. It seems there are many theories as to the origins of Yankee, though some are more plausible than others.

Many of the origins of the word seem to stem from the former Dutch colony of New Netherland, which would have included modern New York and Western Connecticut. In the mid to late 17th century, there was a good deal of interaction between the colonial Dutch, native groups of the North East, and the colonial English in Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Connecticut. Apparently the Dutch first names of Jan and Kees were very common in the area at the time. Sometimes these names were combined into a single name, Jan-Kees. The word Yankee would then have become a variation of Jan-Kees and might have later referred to English colonists who dealt with the Dutch or had close ties to the Dutch. There are other theories relating to the Dutch colonists in New Netherland. According to Michael Quinion and Patrick Hanks, Yankee might originate from the Dutch nickname Janneke or Johnny. Since the Dutch letter “J” sounds like the English letter “Y,” both these theories are at least plausible.

In addition to the Dutch connection, there is also a possible native connection to the word Yankee. In 1819, John Heckewelder stated within History, Manners, and Customs of the Indian Nations that he believed the term Yankee or Yengee came from Native American attempts to pronounce the word “English.” According to Heckewlder:
“Yengees. This name they now exclusively applied to the people of New England, who, indeed, appeared to have adopted it, and were, as they still are, generally through the country called Yankees, which is evidently the same name with a trifling alteration.”

The author, James Fennimore Cooper seems to agree with Heckewelder. In both Deerslayer (1841) and Last of the Mohicans (1826), Cooper uses the term “Yengee” to refer to English settlers. On a side note, I always noticed this pronunciation in the movie Last of the Mohicans, which is honestly a completely different story, but nonetheless awesome!! It should also be noted that James Fennimore Cooper was not well known for the historical accuracy of his novels. Go ask the Mohicans.

There are, of course, several more supposed origins for the term Yankee. Some have stated that it is a Cherokee word meaning coward, some have stated that it was an actual native tribe of the New England area, and at least one source claims that “Yankee” was used in Massachusetts during colonial times to mean excellent. However, the theories presented in the above paragraphs seem the most plausible.            

As I stated previously, who is and who is not currently a Yankee is still a matter of perspective and context. I would venture to say that most of the people who live in my area of Massachusetts do not regularly identify themselves as Yankees. In fact the term inspires a little bit of agitation in most people here because of the New York Yankees rivalry with the Boston Red Sox. However, when my fiancĂ© and I drove back to Massachusetts from Florida, we were instantly identified as Yankees, particularly in one unfriendly IHOP in Georgia. I believe this distinction was best summarized in a quote by E.B. White, the author of Charlotte’s Webb. White is supposed to have stated:

"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."

This quote sums up pretty well how Yankees is really a contextual phrase. Certainly Americans have been called Yankees or Yanks outside of the United States, even more so since both World Wars. Within the United States, I would say that most Southerners would view Yankees as being someone who lives north of the Mason-Dixon. In the Mid-Atlantic States a Yankee might be a New Englander. Being from New England, I never considered those Green Mountain Vermonters to be more Yankee than others, but perhaps that was true in the past.

So, like I said, being a Yankee is an odd indistinct honorific type of insult. It is hard to nail down exactly where the term originated, and we will probably never know for sure which origin is accurate. Am I a Yankee? Well, I’m not Protestant, not English so far as I know, and sadly I am not much like Quint from Jaws. However, some people would definitely call me a Yankee because I was born and raised in New England and both sides of my family have been here for over a century. I figure, if I eat a few more pieces of pie for breakfast, this will push me right over the line.



  1. Interesting and well written post. My family has been in New England around 100 yrs also and was also born and raised in New England. Although being black I've always identified as being a son of the South as thats the food ate and the culture I was raised under. Still I have a great affection for New England and identify with it and prefer it natural landscape to the South, though I prefer the south overall by a bit. I've always though of a Yankee as a Anglo or maybe Germanic person that was unselfish but individualist, frugal, prudent, industrious and willing to help most anyone, tho he himself might prefer not be help.

    1. Thanks for stopping by. As my ancestry is mostly Irish, I suppose my family would not be considered truly Yankee. However, my family has also been in New England for over 100 years, so I guess I consider us Yankee by adoption. The biggest thing I learned while researching Yankees is that the term has no real specific meaning and does not describe one population of people. What a Yankee is really depends on who is saying it and where it is being said.