The Grammarphobia Blog

Damn Yankees!

Q: I’ve heard that “Yankee” comes from an old Indian word. Is that true?

A: The origin of “Yankee” is uncertain, but it’s believed to be derived from the Dutch word “Janke,” which is a diminutive of the name Jan. It originated in the 1680s, and was a derisive term used (among other things) to describe pirates.

The English started using the word to refer contemptuously to the Dutch who had settled along the Hudson River, and later to refer to American settlers in general. It wasn’t until the Revolutionary War that anti-British forces adopted “Yankee” as a term of pride.

In fact, the British initially used the song “Yankee Doodle” to insult the Colonials, according to Wikipedia, but the Americans adopted it with pride after the Battle of Lexington and Concord. It’s now the state song in Connecticut.

The Oxford English Dictionary says the “Janke” explanation is “perhaps the most plausible,” but it also cites less likely theories that “Yankee” comes from American Indian words for slave or coward or English.