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I have heard of the term "Yankee" often referring to people in the Northern U.S. by Southerners. My question is: is this term considered derogatory or offensive and should it be avoided in formal settings?

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I can't imagine any "formal setting" where one would need to use the word "Yankee". –  Milind Ganjoo Apr 16 '12 at 15:10
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@MilindGanjoo: How about at a formal dinner given for or by the New York Yankees? –  Robusto Apr 16 '12 at 15:25
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@MilindGanjoo: You are apparently not involved in New England politics. –  Jeanne Pindar Apr 16 '12 at 18:03
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From The Devil's Dictionary by Ambrose Bierce: YANKEE, n. In Europe, an American. In the Northern States of our Union, a New Englander. In the Southern States the word is unknown. (See DAMNYANK.) –  Henry Apr 16 '12 at 18:58
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Yes, within New England, Yankee is definitely positive. It is used as an adjective form of "New England", with connotations of "local", "traditional", "rural", "independent", or "grass roots", as well as describing a person who lives here. Thus we have terms like "Yankee town meeting". The only negative use would be in reference to the New York baseball team. –  Jeanne Pindar Apr 16 '12 at 19:03

10 Answers 10

up vote 26 down vote accepted

I grew up in the northeastern U.S., and spent 20 years in the military, moving several times along the way.

In the northern states, the term is seldom used, and it's not considered derogatory. If anything, it's borderline patriotic, as in the song I'm a Yankee Doodle Dandy. In the south, though, it's a different matter.

I once had a colleague tell me, "For a Yankee, you're alright." Yes, the term was being used in a derogatory way, and I got the impression he was only half joking.

In Mississippi, I was told more than once, "You Yankees just don't understand this!" It was intended as playful, but you could still detect a trace of genuine resentment.

The only exception to it being considered used in a derogatory way in the north is in the Boston area, and that's when it's referring to the New York baseball team.

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You will sometimes see bumper stickers around Boston that say "I have two favorite [baseball] teams: the Red Sox and whoever beats the Yankees" –  Calvin Fisher Apr 16 '12 at 20:43
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For further reading: This web page does a pretty decent job of discussing the word Yankee, including its historical, traditional, and contemporary meanings, along with its various nuances and overtones. –  J.R. Apr 17 '12 at 2:00
    
It was always my understanding that Yankee Doodle took the term and owned it, taking a derogatory term proudly –  Ben Brocka Apr 17 '12 at 14:03

All right, enough with the speculation! Let's flip over all the cards right now: yankee is not inherently offensive. As I note in my comment, there is a Major League Baseball team known as the New York Yankees.

The New York Yankees

Why would they call themselves that if it were deemed a derogatory term? Where I live, in the Boston area, the term New York Yankees is somewhat offensive, but only because of that team's rivalry with the Boston Red Sox, and the term yankee by itself connotes hard-headed practicality and common sense.

There is, or was, a TV show called The New Yankee Workshop.

The New Yankee Workshop

There was even a Broadway show called Damn Yankees! Way back in the 1950s!

Damn Yankees

Yankee is about as offensive to Americans as Limey is to Brits, I would say. It all depends on context and tone of voice. Someone could say

You yankee bastard!

and it could be construed as meaning anything from vituperation to casual dismissal to downright admiration. It would depend on who was saying it and how it was being said. The same thing could be said about the term American, in fact. Said with a smile, it's friendly; with a look of hatred showing from behind the sights of an AK-47, not so much.

Addendum

A little more evidence that Americans don't think the term is derogatory:

A Yankee in King Arthur's Court

(Also known under the title A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court.)

Yankee Doodle Dandy

I could go on. But the people who are downvoting this answer wouldn't read that far anyway.

P.P.S. (for @J.R.):

Yankee Magazine

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I know quite a few baseball fans who would point to it being used in the name of the New York Yankees as proof that it is derogatory. –  T.E.D. Apr 16 '12 at 17:48
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A team name doesn't really prove anything IMO, look at the name the Washington Redskins- many consider that offensive. –  GBa Apr 16 '12 at 17:57
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By all means don't address my larger point. –  Robusto Apr 16 '12 at 18:29
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There's also a football team called Redskins, and I do believe that's a derogatory term. –  Cronco Apr 16 '12 at 20:13
    
@Cronco: Not the same thing. –  Robusto Apr 16 '12 at 21:05

I recently read a great article regarding both the origins of the term as well as some of the more "fine-tuned" features/aspects of a "true" Yankee.

As everyone will agree, the most popular uses of the term are derogatory in some say, ranging from teasing distinction to outright slur. These include:

  1. Southern US citizen regarding Northern US citizen -- This can be more refined to "Those who stayed in the Union during the US Civil War" were called Yankees by those who seceded to the Confederacy. This has carried on into modern times in the American South to mean--basically--anyone who isn't from the South. (A friend of mine from KC,KS was once called a Yankee in Dallas once, to which he replied, "You can yank on this."

  2. Americans (ie US citizens) in general to the rest of the world (in Mexico, spelled Janqui). This can be a slur "Janqui go home!" or, in other Anglo-descendent countries (Australia, Canada, South Africa, etc) can just mean "Oh those Yanks are at it again"

  3. More archaic - Someone of New England heritage, such as someone from Massachusetts, Connecticut, New Hampshire. A certain cultural heritage can come along with this connotation, such as clam chowder, the rhotic Aaahr (like pahhk the caaa), and a general sense of individualism, self-determination, and stubbornness.

I can't find the article, but it suggested that by the original criteria of the term, long before it became associated with the Mason-Dixon or American Imperialism, that these qualities are really only found consistently in Nova Scotia, making them the only true Yanks left.

However, if you're real question is "Will I get punched in the nose if I call someone a Yankee?" that depends on how likely they would use the term Yankee as a slur toward someone else. The best rule of thumb is not to use a term you think might be offensive unless you're ready to fight or run.

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One of the most well-known New England regional magazines is called Yankee. :-)

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Yankee is part of the name of quite a few businesses and organizations in New England. –  Jeanne Pindar Apr 16 '12 at 20:15

When I lived in Australia in the 80s 'Yank' was the most common term used for Americans and was rarely used to denigrate in any way, but on the contrary was a friendly designation. If the speaker's intention was to insult, "Yank" would simply be preceded by "bloody".

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Yankee is one of those terms that were originally used in a derogatory manner (see the song Yankee Doodle) but has since been reclaimed with pride. For reference see Chicago's nickname "The Windy City". It was originally used by New Yorkers to criticize the native Chicagoan pride, calling Chicago a town of windbags (which still continues to this day). Also see the Second City as in Chicago is a second class city compared to New York.

Yankee was used by Brits as a slur to Americans during and after the Revolutionary War. As someone else pointed out southerners use the term to describe northern Americans. Few Americans refer to themselves as Yankees today, but during the Revolution, many Americans used the name with pride to describe themselves, thus taking the sting out of the Brits' usage of the word. Ironically, it goes hand in hand with the British view of Americans as a bunch of slack-jawed yokels. "Look at them, they don't even know when we're insultin' them."

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I lived in England from 1969-71, and attended Grammar School in Cheltenham, GLOS. As a US citizen and one of only two such in the school (the other was a teacher there) I was referred to and addressed as "Yank" occasionally by my peers (although never as "Yankee"), and never took it as a pejorative, nor did it ever seem to be used as such.

For a few years prior to this, I lived in Toronto, Canada, but don't recall ever hearing either term there.

As a native Californian, being called a "Yank" didn't seem odd at all (although the protypical "Yankee" is from the Northeastern states, not the Western). However, I suspect someone from the US South would probably have received it with some degree of irony -- but probably not offense, unless through tone of voice it was perceived as such.

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The term 'yankee' is on the derogatory spectrum, but is weak to the point of being only nominally so. The word can be used in polite conversation, it is not vulgar or shocking in and off itself. No one would take offense at being called a Yankee (great offense may be intended, but the word itself carries no stigma beyond the implications of the de facto meaning of the word).

There are two primary definitions of 'yankee'

  • someone from the US (to someone outside the US)
  • someone from the north of the US (above the Mason-Dixon line, to someone from the south)

(there are more refined and humorous definitions say by E.B. White; the above two are the most prominent and relevant).

For someone who is not a Yankee to call someone else a Yankee (and who actually is a Yankee), the caller may mean it derogatorily, but the callee won't take the word itself as disrespectful. That is, the same emotive feeling could be reproduced by using a more formal term like American or Northener, there is no shock in using or hearing the word or being the callee.

This could be compared with 'white trash', definitionally 'poor white Southener (in the US)', which is fairly impolite and would be taken as hurtful by the callee.

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Speaking as a Northerner who once spent four horrible summers in the Deep South, I always found that the closest Northern equivalent to the spit-when-you-say-that Southern derogatory word yankee must be traitor. :) –  tchrist Apr 16 '12 at 19:56
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@tchrist: Obviously, you have trouble with the heat. 'horrible summer' = 'summer' there. –  Mitch Apr 16 '12 at 21:09
    
@tchrist: I was taking 'derogatory' with reference to the one so named, not by the one using the word. One can mean all sorts of terrible things but if the hearer doesn't care, then the sting is lost. –  Mitch Apr 16 '12 at 21:16

From the UK, I would not call someone a Yankee ( or Yank ) unless they took the appelation themselves, because I know that some Americans do find the term offensive. It is rarely used here in anything other than a derogatory fashion, but is quite mild in intention ( maybe not in receipt! ).

I woudl say that using it within the US - as a Southerner to a Northerner - it may be taken as rather more offensive. I would suggest not using it, because someone may be particularly offended by it, while others may not care.

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+1 because I live in the north and find both "Yank" and "Yankee" offensive. –  Izkata Apr 16 '12 at 18:00
    
If you find 'yank' offensive, you won't want to know what the British military use instead. Since 'yank' apparently wasn't rude enough, Americans (generally but not exclusively their military counterparts) are called 'seps' or 'seppos' from 'septic tank', to rhyme with 'yank'. This is digressing quite a lot, but if you ever come across it - that's where it comes from. –  Tom W Jun 15 at 10:17

Its definitions do not make it inherently derogatory, but it really depends on the speaker and the context.

In the American south it is often used in a derogatory fashion. Consider this quote from Wikipedia:

The damned Yankee usage dates from 1812. During and after the American Civil War (1861–1865) Confederates popularized it as a derogatory term for their Northern enemies. In an old joke, a Southerner alleges, "I was twenty-one years old before I learned that 'damn' and 'Yankee' were separate words."

I have also heard it used in a derogatory fashion by folks from the UK, usually with the abbreviated form "Yank". This is supported by Urban Dictionary and dictionary.com (see World English dictionary definition).

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Yank and Yankee are different. Yank for American is the original and older term. In BE Yank is mildly offensive but means all Americans, I don't think a Brit would differentiate between north and south. –  mgb Apr 16 '12 at 15:36
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I'm not sure which is 'original' - most dictionaries I saw reference Yank as a derivative and wikipedia cites "Yankee" as the original origin. At any rate, as both an American and a Northerner I've always seen them as equivalent :) –  Lynn Apr 16 '12 at 17:44
    
sorry, I meant that it's use to refer to all Americans is much older than the civil war - dating back to the Dutch New Amsterdam. –  mgb Apr 16 '12 at 17:51

protected by RegDwigнt May 7 '12 at 14:07

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