Recently The Son, who has always been independent minded, posted a picture of himself and The Moose. The Moose was dressed in a Yankee’s shirt and there was an immediate outcry because of all the teams the immediate and extended family supports – the Red Sox, the Nats, the Giants, the Cubs, the Mets, the Twins – the Yankees are not among them.
It reminded me of a column called “Yankee Talk” I wrote for a local paper. In the first installment I explained the origin of the word “Yankee.”
Yankee: what an odd name for an American. With its final double ‘e’, it looks and sounds more like something you’d find in a Chinese dictionary, perhaps as the name of a vegetable or a game.
In fact, it’s a Dutch word. It was probably originally “Janke,” pronounced “Yankee,” which is simply a nickname for Jan or John. Or it could have come from “Jan Kees” which means “John Cheese.” In the 1600’s this was a common name for the Dutch, which isn’t nearly as bizarre as it might seem; throughout history the Dutch have always been famous for their cheeses. Besides, if you stop to think about it, we still use the same kinds of names today: Everyone knows that John Bull is an Englishman or John Doe an ordinary American. In Dutch, John Cheese would have been pronounced “Yan Kees.”
To get back to our story: by 1680 there were a number of Dutch pirates plying their trade in the Caribbean and variations of “Janke,” or perhaps “Jan Kees,” appeared to be a popular name among them. Among the pirates, there are records for a “Yankee,” a “Captain Yankey,” and a “Yankee Duch”. In fact, it seems, that at least in the Caribbean, to be named “Yankee” was to be a pirate.
The exact route by which Yankee appeared on the mainland is not perfectly clear, but one likely theory is that the Dutch settlers of New York were so appalled by the business practices of the English colonists living just over the border in Connecticut that they named them “Yankees.” The English merely thought of themselves as thrifty and enterprising; the Dutch would have it that they were immoral, unethical pirates, more concerned with making money than giving fair value for their goods.
Yankee arrived as an insult and it stayed one for quite a while. In 1758, the British hero of the battle of Quebec, General Wolfe, used the word in a letter home deriding the colonists. Twenty years later during the Revolution, the British were still flinging the term around, but the colonists refused to be bullied and let it be known that they were proud to be Yankees. To prove it, they adopted a catchy little tune as their own special march. In fact, for a while Yankee Doodle was also known as the “Lexington March,” after the battle of Lexington and Concord.
So, with a past like that, who exactly is a Yankee today and just as important, how do people feel about the word now?
If you ask the world at large, you’ll be told that a Yankee is someone from the United States, and continuing the early Dutch and British usage, it’s not always a compliment to be known as one.
In the United States, a Yankee is someone who lives north of the Mason-Dixon line. Call someone from the south a Yankee and you immediately become a very bad insurance risk.
In the northern states, a Yankee is that very lucky independent and stubborn someone from New England who gets to eat pie for breakfast and enjoy spectacular fall foliage simply by walking outside. To be from New England is to be a Yankee and to be a Yankee is a glorious calling, indeed…most of the time.
I only learned about the ‘rest of the time’ quite recently. Last winter we landed at Boston after a long flight from London. We breezed through immigration and collected our luggage in record time. I was so looking forward to getting home and indulging in a little sleep when we screeched to a halt in customs. The inspector there was not so much interested in our suitcases or all the tea we had purchased, but rather in why my son was committing the indecency of wearing a “Yankees hat” in public.
In the future, “Yankee Talk” will muse on what it means to “talk like a Yankee,” at least in the first three senses of the word. I will not touch the fourth. I’m not that brave.
And so I thought looking at the picture of The Adorable Moose, 20 years may have passed, but nothing has changed. One now-grown up, independent stubborn Yankee raises the next. Yankees just love tradition. Especially one that will start a little ruckus.