Where did the word Yankee originate? I was told it had Dutch origins. There is a lot of information on its usage today referring to northern, New England, American etc. but where did it come from and what was it's original meaning?
The ultimate origin of Yankee is unknown. The Library of Congress' 1909 Report on the Star-spangled banner, Hail Columbia, America, Yankee Doodle, compiled by Oscar G. T. Sonneck, reports that the origin was unknown even in the mid-18th century. A 1765 commentary on Oppression, “a Poem by an American with notes by a North Briton” contains this note:
From meanness first, this Portsmouth Yankey rose
And still to meanness all his conduct flows …
“Portsmouth Yankey.” It seems our hero being a new Englander by birth, has a right to the epithet of Yankey, a name of derision, I have been informed, given by the Southern people on the Continent, to those of New England; what meaning there is in the word, I could never learn.
The popularity of the term is possibly related to a farmer and tanner, Jonathan Hastings, who is attested to have lived in Cambridge, Massachusetts around 1728 and was known to students at Harvard. The story is that he was nicknamed Yankey, and the term came to be applied to the characteristics of his products and personality.
A Massachusetts origin would raise some new questions about E.B. White's definitions:
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 Sonneck notes that the fact that Yankey Hastings was a historical figure does not mean he invented the term. He quotes an inventory of the estate of a William Marr from 1725, who owned a slave named Yankee. Besides, how a term popular in New England would come to be used as a term of derision by people outside of New England is not clear.
Sonneck also reports that the popularity of the song Yankee Doodle led to a cottage industry of false etymologies. The 1991 Merriam-Webster New Book of Word Histories notes that the most popular theory, advanced in 1789 by a British officer named Thomas Anburey, traces it to the Cherokee word eankke meaning coward or slave. The problem is that no such word exists. Likewise, the Yankos tribe of American Indians; words or mispronunciations like yanokie, yengee, yinglee, yaunghee, and so on; and other words from Lincolnshire, Scotland, France, and even India or Persia are also mythical or preposterous.
Despite taking Occam's razor to janker, Jantje, Jantje Kaas, and others, Sonneck prefers a Dutch origin:
If the Dutch, on the other hand, actually do use Jancke (pronounced Yankee) in the sense of Little John or Johnnie, then this would be the most plausible derivation, and “Yankee Doodle” would be “Johnny Doodle” .… Whatever the origin of “Yankee” might have been, after “Yankee” was preferably applied to New Englanders, “Yankee Doodle” would simply mean a New England doodle, and it is not to be wondered at that the New Englanders did not take kindly to this nickname “Yankee,” especially not if it meant “Johnny.”
This is the theory the OED prefers:
Perhaps the most plausible conjecture is that it comes from Dutch Janke, diminutive of Jan John, applied as a derisive nickname by either Dutch or English in the New England states (J. N. A. Thierry, 1838, in Life of Ticknor, 1876, II. vii. 124). The existence of Yank(e)y, Yankee, as a surname or nickname (often with Dutch associations) is vouched for by the following references:
- 1683 Cal. State Papers, Colon. Ser. (1898) 457 They [sc. pirates] sailed from Bonaco..; chief commanders, Vanhorn, Laurens, and Yankey Duch. …