Dear Matthew Alice: My in-laws recently came to visit from Ireland. When my mum made the remark, “That’s a Yank for you!” I said something derogatory regarding Micks. Where did we assume the name Yankee or Yank? How does one adopt a name like “Yank” or “Limey” or “Mick”? — Kelly, Mission Valley
Some fun at your house, Kelly. Do all your discussions end in insults and food fights? Well, you can bet name-calling is a sport older than recorded time. Calling the guy in the cave across town a pinhead probably predates fire.
“Yankee” seems to have been applied to several different nationalities, though I’ll warn you, this is another word that has a hazy parentage. I’ll go with the most commonly accepted story. The word originally may have been “Jahn Kees,” Dutch for “John Cheese,” the personification of a dirt-ordinary dolt. It was applied in the 1600s to Netherlanders by Brits and the Flemish. The resulting song, “Yankee Doodle,” with slightly different words from the one we sing, was sung in England as a put-down of Oliver Cromwell and the Puritans. (“Doodle” was a common Britishism for “simpleton.”) When British troops came to North America, they sang “Yankee Doodle” to taunt the colonists, most particularly New Englanders, and called them Yankees. During the American Revolution, New Englanders changed the song’s words to the lyrics we know today and sang it right back at the British, adopting proudly the name “Yankee” as a sort of self-defense. Since the label, good or bad, was most associated with New Englanders, it became a handy put-down for Rebels to use during the Civil War. World War I made the term universally known, sometimes a compliment, sometimes an insult, depending on who was saying it.
Yankee Doodle Update: In the earlier 1990s, the U.S. was plagued by a Bulgarian computer virus that brought your system to a sudden halt, then beeped out the tune to “Yankee Doodle” while it ate your data. Hey, Europe, back off!