Where does the word “Yankee” come from and What does Yankee mean?

One of the great mysteries, for two hundred years, has been the source of the word Yankee.

Some have thought that it came from the mispronunciation of the word “English” by the Indians of Massachusetts.

Others, that its source was in the name of a Dutch captain whose name was Yanky. And still others, more reasonably, credited it to Janke, diminutive of the Dutch name, Jan, John.

But in 1945, H. L. Mencken, that indefatigable delver in Americanisms, in his The American Language: Supplement One, presented some additional findings in substantiation of an earlier theory. His statement, which he has authorized us to use, follows:

The etymology adopted in The American Language, Fourth Edition, to wit, that Yankee comes from Jan and kees, signifying John Cheese, is not approved by the DAE (Dictionary of American English), but it has the support of Dr. Henri Logeman of the University of Ghent, and it seems likely to stand. In its original form the term was Jan Kaas, and in that form it has been a nickname for a Hollander, in Flanders and Germany, for a great many years. In the days of the buccaneers the English sailors began to use it to designate a Dutch freebooter, and in this sense it became familiar in New York. Presently the New York Dutch, apparently seizing upon its opprobrious significance, began to apply it to the English settlers of Connecticut, who were regarded at the time as persons whose commercial enterprise ran far beyond their moral scruples. A little while later it came into general use in the colonies to designate a disliked neighbor to the northward, and there was a time when the Virginians applied it to the Marylanders. In the end the New Englanders saw in it a flattering tribute to their cunning, and so not only adopted it themselves, but converted it into an adjective signifying excellence. The DAE’s first printed example of Yankee, then spelled Yankey, is dated 1683, at which time the term still meant a pirate, and was applied as a proper name to one of the Dutch commanders in the West Indies. By the middle of the Eighteenth Century it had come to mean a New Englander, and by the Revolutionary period the English were using it to designate any American. During the Civil War, as everyone knows, the Southerners used it, usually contemptuously, of all Northerners, and in consequence its widened meaning became restricted again, but in World War I it underwent another change, and since then, though they objected at first, even Southerners have got used to being called Yankees, e.g., by the English.

About Karen Hill

Karen Hill is a freelance writer, editor, and columnist. Born in New York, her work has appeared in the Examiner, Yahoo News, Buzzfeed, among others.

Leave a Comment