Why are Americans called Yankees? It’s a question that’s been asked for centuries, and there are a few different theories out there. In this blog post, we’ll explore some of the most likely explanations for this nickname.
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The Origin of the Term
The term “Yankee” is most likely derived from the Dutch word “Janke,” which was used to describe a particularly smart or well-behaved child. “Yankee Doodle,” on the other hand, is a song that was sung by British soldiers to mock the American colonists during the Revolutionary War. Over time, the term “Yankee” has come to be a symbol of American pride.
The Dutch Connection
It is generally accepted that the term “Yankee” and its cognates in other languages derive from a Dutch expression meaning “Englishmen” (in various spelling variants, including yeniken, janke and Jankes). The earliest known use of the term in print in the United States was in a January 6, 1776, letter by George Washington to Major General Charles Lee. Washington referred to expressions used by the British to derisively describe Americans during the Revolution, such as “sons of liberty” and “rebels”, and applied them to Lee.British general Thomas Gage reportedly used the word “Yankees” on April 12, 1775, when staging a raid against Lexington and Concord in Massachusetts. Gage supposedly uttered the word while ordering his troops to disperse a group of American militiamen.
The term appeared in newspaper articles in Boston as early as May 16, 1775, when the city was besieged by the British during the early stages of the Revolutionary War. In December 1775, John Adams used the term Yankee poesy in a letter to his wife describing a composition by Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr.. Adams commented that Holmes had “improved English poetry infinitely”. Abraham Lincoln allegedly used the term during the American Civil War to describe troops from New England (which at that time still included Vermont and Maine).
The Oxford English Dictionary’s first citation for Yankee is from 1758, when it was used as slang for an undisciplined cavalryman or foot soldier; subsequent citations show that it was also applied derisively to Dutch sailors or pirates operating off Manhattan Island.(The OED cites San Francisco-based novelist Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City  for use of Yankee as homosexual slang; however, this may be an instance of back-formation.)
The British Connection
When the American Revolution began in 1775, the most common nickname for an American was “Yankee.” It’s thought to come from a Dutch word, jankee, meaning “little John.” (Yankee was a common nickname for men named John in the Dutch colonies.) The British used the term to describe all American colonists, and it quickly became a symbol of everything that was different about the new country.
After the war, “Yankee” became closely associated with New England, where many of the original colonists had come from. In the early 1800s, it started to be used as a term for all people from the United States. In 1861, during the Civil War, the song “Yankee Doodle” became a popular rallying cry for Union soldiers from the North.
Today, “Yankee” is often used to describe anyone from the northeastern United States. It can also be used as a general term for an American, especially someone from the North.
The American Connection
The word “Yankee” and the related word “Yank” have a number of different meanings, all of which relate to the United States in some way. The most common meaning of “Yankee” is an American citizen, while “Yank” is simply a nickname for the United States.
The Civil War Connection
The American Civil War was fought between the Confederate States of America, made up of 11 southern states that seceded from the United States, and the Union states, made up of 23 northern states. During the war, Union soldiers were referred to as Yankees by Confederate soldiers.
After the war, the term Yankee became a pejorative term used by Southerners to refer to all Northerners. Over time, however, the term has lost its negative connotations and is now considered a neutral term used to refer to all Americans.
The New York Connection
The word “Yankee” and its shortened form, “Yank,” have been used since the 18th century to refer to people from the northern United States, especially those from New England.
The origin of the word is disputed, but one theory is that it is derived from a Dutch word meaning “easterling.” This term was used to describe people who lived in the eastern part of the Dutch Republic, which included the New England colonies. Another theory is that the word is derived from Native American words meaning “people of the north wind” or “enemy.”
Whatever its origins, the use of the word “Yankee” to refer to Americans has a long history. It was first recorded in print in 1765, and by the early 19th century it was being used in both Britain and America to refer to people from the United States.
The use of “Yankee” as a derogatory term for Americans dates back to the War of 1812, when British soldiers used it as an insult for their American opponents. The Americans eventually embraced the term and used it proudly as a symbol of their nation’s strength. Today, “Yankee” is used informally to refer to people from all over the United States, not just from New England.
The Canadian Connection
The Canadian province of Newfoundland and Labrador is the closest landmass to the United States, and the Canadian city of Halifax is the closest city. Halifax is only about 400 miles from Boston. The American Revolution started in Boston, and many of the people who fought in the Revolutionary War were from New England. After the war, these people were called Yankees.
The United Empire Loyalists
After the American Revolution, many loyalists to the British crown left the new United States and settled in what is now Canada. These settlers were called United Empire Loyalists and their arrival had a significant impact on Canadian society and culture.
The United Empire Loyalists brought with them many of the traditions and values of Britain, which helped to shape the young nation of Canada. One of the most noticeable British influences can be seen in the architecture of early Canadian settlements, which often resembled those found in Britain. The United Empire Loyalists also introduced Canadians to such British customs as afternoon tea and horseback riding.
Many of the United Empire Loyalists were also skilled tradespeople, such as carpenters and blacksmiths. Their skills were in high demand in the new country, and helped to build many of the early roads, homes and bridges in Canada.
The United Empire Loyalists also brought with them a strong sense of loyalty to the British crown. This loyalty was evident during the War of 1812, when many Canadians sided with Britain against their American neighbours.
Today, Canada is a proud nation with a rich history that includes both British and French influences. The country has been shaped by its diverse population, which includes people from all corners of the globe.
The First Nations Connection
When the first Europeans arrived in North America, they found the indigenous people using a variety of names to refer to themselves. The French called them les Sauvages (“the Savages”), but the English had trouble pronouncing this and started calling them “the Yankis.” This name eventually morphed into “Yankee,” and it stuck.
Interestingly, the term “Yankee” can be traced back to the Dutch word Janke, meaning “little John.” However, it’s more likely that the name comes from a Native American tribe called the Yankton Sioux. In any case, it was the English who brought the term to North America and began using it to refer to all Americans, regardless of region or ethnicity.
Over time, “Yankee” has taken on a number of different meanings. Today, it is most often used to describe someone from New England or the Northeastern United States. But in other parts of the country, “Yankee” can be used as a synonym for “American” or simply mean “northerner.” In some cases, it can even be used as an insult!
Despite its sometimes negative connotations, “Yankee” is an integral part of American culture and history. So next time you hear someone called a Yankee, don’t be too quick to judge—you might just be hearing about one of your countrymen.