“Yankee” is a word almost everyone has heard, but most of us don't know quite what it means.


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Geography, Human Geography

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Yankee” is a word almost everyone has heard—but most of us don't know quite what it means. Some people love it—especially baseball fans who root for the New York Yankees. Some people hate it—the word started as an insult. Some people think it's simply a silly description for people who live in a certain area of the United States.

Yankee is sometimes abbreviated as “Yank.” People from all over the world, including Great Britain, Australia, and South America, use the term to describe Americans. (In Spanish, it’s spelled yanqui.) Sometimes, it's a negative description. Other times, it's a playful term.

In the United States, the term specifically refers to residents of New England. New England includes the states of Connecticut, Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island.

During the Civil War, and even after the war came to an end, Yankee was a term used by Southerners to describe their rivals from the Union, or northern, side of the conflict. After the war, Yankee was once again mostly used to describe New Englanders.

Yankees have been important players in politics. Often, there is a stereotype associated with Yankee politicians: they are white, wealthy, and attended elite colleges like Harvard University. Yankee politicians are often associated with civic pride and public service.

Former Presidents John F. Kennedy (from Massachusetts), Calvin Coolidge (from Vermont), and George H. W. Bush (from Massachusetts and Maine) are considered cultural Yankees.

No one is really sure where the word Yankee came from. Some say a British general named James Wolfe used it first in 1758 when he was commanding some New England soldiers. Others say the word comes from the Cherokee word eankke, which means coward. Some say it comes from a Dutch word, since many immigrants from the Netherlands settled in the northeast part of the United States.

The song "Yankee Doodle" is a familiar one to many who grew up in the United States. It started out as a well-known British song, dating back to the early 1700s. The song describes a sloppy person. Its lyrics were sung originally by British military officers to mock the amateur "Yankee" soldiers of the American Colonies.

Eventually, the song, now the state anthem of Connecticut, became the first national anthem of the United States. In fact, "Yankee Doodle" was sung at Fort McHenry, Maryland, when Francis Scott Key wrote "The Star-Spangled Banner" nearby.

The American author E. B. White came up with a funny summary of how to keep the term straight. It shows how, in the end, who is and isn't a Yankee is all about the geographic perspective:

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.

Fast Fact

A Connecticut Yankee
American author Mark Twain's novel, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court, was the inspiration for a handful of movies including A Kid in King Arthur's Court, Army of Darkness, and Black Knight. (Twain himself was not a Yankee; he was a Southerner from Hannibal, Missouri.)

Fast Fact

Yankee Clipper
Joe DiMaggio, a center fielder for the New York Yankees (an American professional American baseball team), was nicknamed The Yankee Clipper. DiMaggio was chosen for the All-Star Game every year he played, from 1936-1942, and from 1946-1951. (The Yankee Clipper didnt take a four-year break; he joined the U.S. Army Air Corps during World War II.)

Fast Fact

Yankee Doodle
Before The Star Spangled Banner, by Francis Scott Key, was made the official U.S. national anthem in 1931, Yankee Doodle was often used as an unofficial national anthem.

The official version of Yankee Doodle has 16 verses, giving a good account of the American Revolution. One of the verses mentions Captain George Washington, who was not then a general or a president.

The daughter of President John Kennedy, Caroline, had a pony, Macaroni, named after the lyrics to "Yankee Doodle." Macaroni was given to the Yankee, Caroline, by her father's Southern (from Texas) vice president, Lyndon Johnson.

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Jeannie Evers, Emdash Editing, Emdash Editing
National Geographic Society
Last Updated

October 19, 2023

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