This self-referential American term is of uncertain origin. The most likely source of the word is the Dutch nickname Janke, a diminutive of Jan (John). Although it must be said that this is not the only possible explanation.
Use as a nickname for a person is attested to from the 1680s. The Calendar of State Papers, Colonial Series, an archive of British government documents, has this from 1683:
They sailed from Bonaco..; chief commanders, Vanhorn, Laurens, and Yankey Duch.
And from 1684:
A sloop...unlawfully seized by Captain Yankey.
And from 1687:
Captains John Williams (Yankey) and Jacob Everson (Jacob).
There is a 1725 reference to Yankee being the name of a slave in the Carolinas, from the Inventory of W. Marr of Carolina in Notes & Queries:
Item one negroe man named Yankee to be sold.
Use of Yankee to refer to someone from New England dates to at least 1765. From the poem Oppression, a Poem by an American with the “note” being by a North Briton, or Scot (and the Portsmouth is a reference to the town in New Hampshire, not the one in England):
From meanness first this Portsmouth Yankey rose.
Note, “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 never could learn.
There is a claim that a 1758 letter by General James Wolfe used the word Yankee, but there is doubt about the authenticity of the quote. If accurate, it would be the earliest known use of the word to refer to Americans, but skepticism is warranted. The quote reads:
My posts are now so fortified that I can afford you two companies of Yankees, and the more because they are better for ranging and scouting than either work or vigilance.
Finally, use to describe an inhabitant of the United States more generally is recorded from c.1784. From a letter by then Captain Horatio Nelson to Captain William Locker:
I...am determined not to suffer the Yankies to come where the ship is.
As mentioned above, the Janke explanation is not the only one. There are several others which might be correct.
One is another Dutch explanation, except that instead of coming from Janke, it comes from John Cheese, or in Dutch, Jan Kaese. The name John Cheese has been an English epithet since the 16th century. From a poem by Roger Ascham, written sometime before 1570:
Of thou be thrall to none of thises,
Away good Peek goos, hens John Cheese.
Another explanation, first promulgated in 1789 by Thomas Anburey, a British officer in the American Revolution. in his Travels he contends that Yankee is from the Cherokee eankke, meaning slave or coward. That same year, William Gordon in his History of the American Revolution states that a Jonathan Hastings of Cambridge, Massachusetts was fond of using Yankee to mean excellent. Finally, from the early 19th century is a series of contentions that the word comes from Native American attempts to pronounce the word English. From John Heckewelder’s 1819 History, Manners, and Customs of the Indian Nations:
Yengees. This name they now exclusively applied to the people of New England...They say they know the Yengees, and can distinguish them by their dress and personal appearance...The proper English they call Saggenash.
Other explanations, offered without evidence or even as deliberate hoaxes, have been given over the years and sometimes these are repeated with serious intention. They include:
- Washington Irving, in his Knickerbocker’s History of New York, facetiously claimed it came from a MaisTchuseg (Massachusett) word Yanokies meaning silent men.
- Another hoax appeared in an 1810 Boston newspaper. It claimed that it derived from a Persian word, jenghe, meaning warlike man or swift horse. The article was a parody of Noah Webster’s writings and, again, some have taken it seriously.
- The Pennsylvania Evening Post in 1775 suggested that it came from the name of an Indian tribe, the Yankoos, which meant invincible ones. Despite the patriotic sympathy exhibited by the paper, there is no other evidence of the existence of this tribe.
- Various British dialectical words have also been suggested. Yankee was supposedly a Lincolnshire word for gaiters or leggings. In Scots, yankie means a forward, clever woman and yanking is an adjective meaning pushy, forward. Another dialect word, jank means excrement, although this one is pronounced with the /j/ sound, not the /y/.
(Sources: Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd Edition; A.W. Read’s America—Naming the Country and Its People)
Copyright 1997-2015, by David Wilton