Why do Brits call Americans “yanks”: a fascinating history!

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You’ve probably heard the term “yanks” to refer to Americans, particularly by British people, but have you ever wondered where it came from or thought more about the iconic American song, Yankee Doodle Dandy?

In this post, we’re uncovering the hidden history behind the term, and discovering how Yankee Doodle Dandy, now the anthem of the state of Connecticut and the USA’s first national anthem, actually started as a way to make fun of Americans!

Where did the term “yank” come from?

So let’s start with the actual term “yank” or “yankee.”

Many people know that it’s used to refer to Americans in general by some people outside the United States, particular in places like the UK and Australia.

It is not necessarily a derisive term – it can be playful, too, depending on how it’s said and as an American, I definitely do not take offense to it or think of it as an insult.

But what you might not know if you don’t live in the US is that the term “yankee” is also used within the US – in the Southern United States, it’s used to refer to Northerners- more specifically New Englanders, which includes people from the states of Connecticut, Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island.

Image: YANK. Donald [CC BY 2.0], via Flickr

During the American Civil War, it was used by Confederate soldiers to refer to the Union army, so again, being used by some Americans to refer to other Americans, not just by outsiders from other countries.

We even have the New York baseball team – the New York Yankees.

American author E.B White came up with a funny little summary to try and “keep it straight,” which goes.

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.

But who came up with the term – yank?

This is one of the biggest mysteries – there is one theory that has the most research behind it and is supported by the most number of sources, so we’ll go over that one, but it has also been hypothesized that the term originated as a Native American word, or was borrowed by the French.

Actually, most scholars think that the term began as a derisive term back in America’s colonial days.

There is a Dutch name pronounced “Janneke” – can be shortened to Yan, and the hypothesis is that it may have been used as a kind of derisive nickname for a Dutch-Speaking American in colonial times, used as an insult by English colonists.

Then, over time, possibly – the Dutch settlers of New Amsterdam would have used it back against the English colonists in Connecticut.

It wasn’t until 1758 when the actual first recorded use of Yankee is found, by British general James Wolfe who referred to New England soldiers under his command as “Yankees”.

And then it sort of grows from there, with Americans claiming it for themselves as well and referring to themselves as Yankees.

This pattern – the American colonists taking something that is meant to be an insult and sort of “claiming it” in order to lessen the derogatory effects, can also be seen in the origins of Yankee Doodle Dandy, the song.

History of Yankee Doodle Dandy

The tune of the song itself goes way back and no one is entirely sure where the tune comes from, but the actual verses as they’re known now were the product of a British military doctor, who wrote it during the French and Indian War in 1755 when British soldiers were sent to protect the American colonists.

The story goes that it was sung by British soldiers to poke fun at the American colonists – if you really listen to the lines of the song, you can see that it’s not entirely positive.

We’ve gone over “yankee,” but “doodle” is Dutch for something who is a fool, and “dandy” was someone who is a conceited jerk.

The song was meant to portray Americans as kind of dumb, conceited, and cowardly.

In the song, he “sticks a feather in his cap and calls it macaroni” – this was essentially implying that the Americans were trying to seem sophisticated and stylish to keep up with the Europeans, but were failing and “misappropriating” upper class fashion, as if you could stick a feather in your cap and suddenly be noble.

However, by 1775, at the Battles of Lexington and Concord, suddenly the American troops were defeating the British soldiers, and it was reported that they had sung the song to mock the retreating redcoats – ie, turning it around and making fun of them with a song they had come up with to make fun of the Americans, like “how do you like these yankee doodles and dandies now?”

At that point, it basically becomes the unofficial national anthem of the American Revolution, and they make up all kinds of new verses to refer to everyone from George Washington to talk about the Battle of Bunker Hill to poke fun at King George III.

Today, it’s actually the state song of Connecticut, and well known and sung by Americans as a patriotic song (though many, I’m sure, don’t know the initial origins).

And now you know!

1 thought on “Why do Brits call Americans “yanks”: a fascinating history!”

  1. Awww thank you! Love this! I appreciate you sharing it with me. I love history! I am a bred and born southerner so I quite understand that we call the Northerners yankees but I didn’t know why or even that it is used by so many others for different groups of people! It’s truly fascinating!

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