Historically Speaking

Making sense of it all!

Yanks

Posted by Elyse Bruce on July 1, 2010

The term “Yanks” is an abbreviated version of the term “Yankee.”  It is a bastardization of the derogatory term “Jan Kaas” — translated, it means “John Cheese”  — that was bestowed on the cheese-making Dutch by the Germans and the Flemish in the 1600s.   The English began to use the term shortly thereafter to refer to Dutch pirates.  And soon enough, Dutch settlers immigrating to the northern states in America brought the term with them and applied it to English settlers in Connecticut.

By 1745, the phrase “Yankee Doodle” became prominent as it was used to make fun of the rag-tag appearance and ill-equipped state of colonial troops as they left to fight the Battle of Louisburg.  The reason for this was because the definition of “doodle” at the time was a silly person or a country bumpkin.  So a Yankee Doodle was a country bumpkin colonial settler who had signed up to fight in the war.

In 1755, Dr. Richard Schuckburg, a British Army surgeon reportedly wrote new lyrics to an old folksong known as “Doodle Doodle Doo.”  The intent of the new lyrics was to ridicule, degrade and humiliate the Americans.  The fife and drum corps of the British reinforcements played “Yankee Doodle” while marching into battle at Lexington, MA on April 19, 1775 where they were defeated.  The Pennsylvania Gazette reported on June 7, 1775 that “‘the Brigade under Lord Percy marched out, playing, by way of contempt, Yankee Doodle; they were afterwards told, they had been made to dance to it.'”

By 1777, “Yankee Doodle” had become an unofficial American anthem. Following General John Burgoyne‘s surrender of British troops to the Continental Army on October 17, 1777, British officer Thomas Anburey referred to the Americans as “Yankees.”

The Yankee and Pennamite War was a series of clashes that occurred in 1769 over land titles in Pennsylvania, in which “Yankee” meant the Connecticut claimant.  To this very day, “Yankee Doodle” is Connecticut‘s State Song, firmly entrenching a positive spin to the term “Yankee.”

And yet, Yankee is still a vague term in some respects.   American author E. B. White (July 11, 1899 – October 1, 1985) summarized the distinctions for the word “Yankee” in this way:

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.

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