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This article is about Yankee. For other uses of the term Yankee, please see Yankee (disambiguation).

The term Yankee (also Yank) refers to an American of New England origin or heritage, and (outside the US) to all Americans. Historically, the term refers to residents of New England, as used by Mark Twain in A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court. During and after the American Civil War, its popular meaning expanded to include any Northerner or resident of the Union, and included any resident of the northern states.

Origins of the word

The origins of the term are uncertain. In 1758 British General James Wolfe referred to the New England soldiers under his command as Yankees: "I can afford you two companies of Yankees."[1] The term as used by the British was thick with contempt, as shown by the cartoon from 1775 ridiculing Yankee soldiers.[2] The "Yankee and Pennamite" war was a series of clashes over land titles in Pennsylvania, 1769, in which "Yankee" meant the Connecticut claimants.

Johnathan Hastings of Cambridge, Massachusetts, around 1713 regularly used the word as a superlative, generally in the sense of excellent.[3]

One theory, no longer held by scholars, says the word derives from the Northeastern Native American approximation of the words English and Anglais. [4] It has been rejected by linguists.[5]

The Oxford English Dictionary suggests the most plausible origin to be that it is derived from the Dutch surnames "Jan" and "Kees". "Jan" and "Kees" were common Dutch surnames, and also common Dutch given names or nicknames. "Jan" means "John" and may have been used as a reference to the settlers of New-York (New-Amsterdam at the time) who were Dutch. The word Yankee in this sense would be used as a form of contempt, applied derisively to Dutch settlers in New England and New York. [6] Another speculation suggests the Dutch form was Jan Kaas, "John Cheese", from the prevalence of dairy-farming among the Dutch, but this seems far-fetched. More realistically, Michael Quinion and Patrick Hanks argue[7]the term refers to the Dutch nickname and surname Janke, Anglicized to Yanke and "used as a nickname for a Dutch-speaking American in colonial times". By extension, according to their theory, the term grew to include non-Dutch American colonists as well.

Yankee Doodle

Loyalist newspaper cartoon from Boston 1776 ridicules "Yankie Doodles" militia who have encircled the city

One influence on the use of the term throughout the years has been the song Yankee Doodle, which was popular at the time of the American Revolutionary War (1775–1783). Though the British intended to insult the colonials with the song, following the Battle of Concord, it was adopted by Americans as a proud retort and today is the state song of Connecticut.

Canadian usage

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 (now part of Canada), in 1835. The character was a plain-talking American who served to poke fun at American and Nova Scotian customs of that era, while trying to urge the old-fashioned Canadians to be as clever and hard-working as the Yankees.


The "damned Yankee" usage dates from 1812.[8] During and after the American Civil War (1861–1865) Confederates popularized it as a derogatory term for their Northern enemies.

Yankee cultural history

The term Yankee now means residents of New England, of English ancestry, although that was not the original definition. (See origin of the term below). The Yankees diffused widely across the northern United States, leaving their imprint in New York, the upper Midwest, and places as far away as Seattle, San Francisco and Honolulu. [9] Yankees typically lived in villages (rather than separate farms), which fostered local democracy in town meetings; stimulated mutual oversight of moral behavior and emphasized civic virtue. From New England seaports like Boston, Salem, Providence and New London, the Yankees built an international trade, stretching to China by 1800. Much of the merchant profits were reinvested in the textile and machine tools industries.

Education was always a high priority as typified by Harvard College (1636), Boston Latin School (1635) and Yale College (1701), as well as early advanced schools of law, medicine, theology and engineering. The Yankees pioneered the free public school and, under the leadership of Horace Mann designed a system of public schools and teacher training colleges that formed the national model copied eventually by all the states. By the late 19th century Yankees were creating the first American universities, including Harvard and Yale. Prep schools such as St. Paul's, Phillips Andover, Phillips Exeter, Choate and Groton, continue to play a leading role in educating the wealthiest families.

In religion New England Yankees originally followed the Puritan tradition as expressed in Congregational churches, but after 1750 many became Episcopalians, Methodists, Baptists or Unitarians. The 17th century straight-laced moralism portrayed by novelist Nathaniel Hawthorne faded in the 18th century. The First Great Awakening (under Jonathan Edwards) in the mid-18th century and the Second Great Awakening in the early 19th century (under Charles Grandison Finney) emphasized personal piety, revivals, and devotion to civic duty. Theologically Arminianism replaced the original Calvinism. Horace Bushnell introduced the idea of Christian nurture, whereby children would be brought to religion without revivals.

After 1800 the Yankees (along with the Quakers) spearheaded most reform movements, including abolition, temperance, women's rights and women's education. Emma Willard and Mary Lyons pioneered in the higher education of women, while Yankees comprised most of the reformers who went South during Reconstruction in the 1860s to educate the Freedmen.

Politically, the 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 they voted only 40% for the Whigs in 1848 and 1852, but became 61–65% Republican in presidential elections of 1856 through 1864. [10]

The Ivy League universities and "Little Ivies" liberal arts colleges, particularly Harvard and Yale, remained bastions of old Yankee culture until well after World War II.

Calvin Coolidge was a striking example of the Yankee type. Coolidge moved from rural Vermont to urban Massachusetts, and was educated at 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.[11] Coolidge's laconic ways and dry humor was characteristic of stereotypical rural "Yankee humor" at the turn of the twentieth century.[12]

The fictional character Thurston Howell III of Gilligan's Island, a graduate of Harvard University, typifies the old Yankee elite in a comical way.

In the 21st century the 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 politics in the 21st century was typified by Presidents George H. W. Bush, Democratic National Chairman Howard Dean and Democratic presidential nominee Senator John Forbes Kerry, scion of the old colonial Forbes family.

Contemporary uses

In the United States

In the 19th century Yankee was most often used to refer to a New Englander (in which case it may suggest Puritanism and thrifty values), but today refers to anyone coming from a northern state, with a specific focus still on New England. However, within New England itself, the term refers more specifically to old-stock New Englanders of English descent. The term WASP, in use since the 1960s, refers by definition to all Protestants of English ancestry, including Yankees and Southerners, though its meaning is often extended to refer to any Protestant white American.

The term "Swamp Yankee" is used in rural areas of Rhode Island, eastern Connecticut, and southeastern Massachusetts to refer to Protestant farmers of moderate means and their descendants (as opposed to upper-class Yankees).[13] Scholars note that the famous Yankee "twang" survives mainly in the hill towns of interior New England.[14] The most characteristic Yankee food was the pie; Yankee author Harriet Beecher Stowe in her novel Oldtown Folks celebrated the social traditions surrounding the Yankee pie.

In the South, the term is sometimes used as a derisive term for Northerners, especially those who have migrated to the South. As some Southerners put it, "A Yankee is a Northerner, and a Damnyankee [written and pronounced as one word] is a Northerner who moves (or comes) South". Southerners, by and large, resent being labeled "yankee" when travelling abroad.

A humorous aphorism attributed to E.B. White summarizes these distinctions:

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.

Another variant of the aphorism replace the last definition with "an outhouse". There are several other folk and humorous etymologies for the term.

One of Mark Twain's most famous novels, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court popularized the word as a nickname for residents of Connecticut.

It is also the official team nickname of a Major League Baseball franchise, the New York Yankees.

In Commonwealth countries

In English-speaking countries outside the United States, especially in Australia, Canada, Ireland, New Zealand and the United Kingdom, Yankee, almost universally shortened to Yank, is used as a derogatory or playfully admiring colloquial term for all Americans.

In Britain, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, "Yank" has been in common use since at least World War II, when millions of Americans were stationed in the UK and Australia. Depending on the country, "Yankee" may be considered mildly derogatory.

The term has evolved, through the use of rhyming slang, to the word "seppo" [15] (Yankee - Yank - Septic Tank - Septic - Seppo) in Australia.[3]

Recent usage in Europe indicates that Australian tourists have been called "New Yanks."[16]

In other parts of the world

In some parts of the world, particularly in some Latin American countries, and in East Asia, yankee or yanqui is used sometimes as an insult politically associated with anti-Americanism and used in expressions such as "Yankee go home" or "we struggle against the yanqui, enemy of humanity" (words from the Sandinista anthem).

In Argentina and Uruguay, however, the term is referred to as someone who is from the US and hardly ever derogatory.

In the late 19th century the Japanese were called "the Yankees of the East" in praise of their industriousness and drive to modernization.[17] In 21st century Japan, the term Yankī is used to refer to a type of delinquent youth[18] who often sports brightly bleached hair. Etymology of the word is disputed, although one of the theories suggest the word comes from the English word "yankee."

In Finland, the word jenkki (yank) is commonly used to refer to any American, and Jenkkilä (Yankeeland) refers to the United States itself. It isn't considered a very offensive or anti-American, but rather a spoken language expression. [19]


  1. Mathews (1951) p 1896
  2. Mathews (1951) p 1896
  3. "yankee, n and a" OED <http://dictionary.oed.com/cgi/entry/50288716>
  4. "yankee, n and a" OED <http://dictionary.oed.com/cgi/entry/50288716>
  5. Mathews (1951) p 1896
  6. "yankee, n and a" OED
  7. see [1])
  8. Mathews (1951) p 1896
  9. Mathews (1909), Holbrook (1950)
  10. Kleppner p 55
  11. William Allen White, A Puritan in Babylon: The Story of Calvin Coolidge (1938) p. 122.
  12. Arthur George Crandall,"New England Joke Lore: The Tonic of Yankee Humor", (F.A. Davis Company, 1922).
  13. Ruth Schell, "Swamp Yankee", American Speech, 1963, Volume 38, No.2 , pg. 121–123. accessed through JSTOR
  14. Fisher, Albion's Seed p 62; Edward Eggleston, The Transit of Civilization from England to America in the Seventeenth Century. (1901) p. 110; Fleser (1962)
  15. Blair, David (2001). “Hypocoristics of Place names”, English in Australia. John Benjamins Publishing, 103. ISBN 978-90-272-4884-8. OCLC 786465823. 
  16. New Yanks. Urban Dictionary. Retrieved on 4 October 2013. “Have you seen those New Yanks? They are arrogant, they swill down beer, and have no respect for local culture.”
  17. William Eleroy Curtis, The Yankees of the East, Sketches of Modern Japan. (New York: 1896).
  18. Daijirin dictionary, Yahoo! Dictionary
  19. . See comments on H-South by Seppo K J Tamminen at [2]