AskDefine | Define Yankee

Dictionary Definition

Yankee adj : used by southerners for an inhabitant of a northern state in the United States (especially a Union soldier)


1 an American who lives in the North (especially during the American Civil War) [syn: Yank, Northerner]
2 an American who lives in New England [syn: New Englander, Yank]
3 an American [syn: Yank, Yankee-Doodle]

User Contributed Dictionary



1683, a name applied disparagingly by Dutch settlers in Nieuw Amsterdam (New York) to English colonists in neighboring Connecticut. It may be from Du. Janke, lit. "Little John," dim. of common personal name Jan; or it may be from Jan Kees familiar form of "Johan Cornelius," or perhaps an alt. of Jan Kees, dial. variant of Jan Kaas, lit. "John Cheese," the generic nickname the Flemings used for Dutchmen. It originally seems to have been applied insultingly to Dutch, especially freebooters, before they turned around and slapped it on the English. In Eng. a term of contempt (1750s) before its use as a general term for "native of New England" (1765). Shortened form Yank in reference to "an American" first recorded 1778.



  1. A native or inhabitant of New England.
  2. A native or inhabitant of the Northern USA.
  3. A native or inhabitant of the USA.
  4. The letter Y in the ICAO spelling alphabet.
  5. A large triangular headsail used in light or moderate winds and set on the fore topmast stay. Unlike a genoa it does not fill the whole fore triangle, but is set in combination with the working staysail.
  6. A player that plays for the New York Yankees.


a native or inhabitant of New England
a native or inhabitant of the Northern USA
a native or inhabitant of the USA
  • Finnish: jenkki
  • German: Ami, Yankee
  • Portuguese: ianque m|f
  • Russian: янки
  • Spanish: yanqui
the letter "Y"
  • Finnish: Yrjö
  • German: Ypsilon
(nautical) A large triangular headsail
  • Dutch: vlieger
(baseball) A player that plays for the New York Yankees
  • Spanish: Yanqui

Extensive Definition

The term Yankee (sometimes abbreviated to Yank) has a number of possible meanings, but in almost all contexts, it refers to someone of United States origin or heritage. Within the United States, its popular meaning has varied over time. Historically, the term usually refers to residents of New England, as used by Mark Twain in A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court. During and after the American Civil War, its popular meaning expanded to include any Northerner or resident of the Union, and included any resident of the Northeast (New England, Mid-Atlantic, and upper Great Lakes states).
Over time, however, and in the United States, the term has since reverted to its 18th century geographic indication of New England, except when the speaker is from the South. Outside the United States, Yank or Yankee is one of the lesser derogatory slang terms for any US resident, whether from New England or not. Some US citizens who travel or live abroad, not exclusively but generally from southern states, may however find being called 'Yank' or 'Yankee' particularly offensive. This is both in terms of the generally non-flattering nature in which residents of southern states use the term at home, but also by the unexpected shock that indeed all US citizens can be known as Yankees while abroad.

Origins of the word

The origins of the term are uncertain. In 1758 British General James Wolfe referred to the New England soldiers under his command as Yankees: "I can afford you two companies of Yankees." The term as used by the British was thick with contempt, as shown by the cartoon from 1775 ridiculing Yankee soldiers. The "Yankee and Pennamite" war was a series of clashes over land titles in Pennsylvania, 1769, in which "Yankee" meant the Connecticut claimants.
Johnathan Hastings of Cambridge, Massachusetts was attributed around 1713 to regularly using the word as a superlative, generally in the sense of excellent.
The Oxford English Dictionary states that one of the earliest theories on the word derivation is from the Cherokee word "eankke" for coward as applied to the residents of New England. Also, as the Northeastern Native American approximation of the words English and Anglais. It has been rejected by some linguists.
The Oxford English Dictionary suggests the most plausible origin to be that it is derived from the Dutch first names "Jan" and "Kees". "Jan" and "Kees" were and still are common Dutch first names, and also common Dutch given names or nicknames. In many instances both names (Jan-Kees) are also used as a single first name in the Netherlands. The word Yankee in this sense would be used as a form of contempt, applied derisively to Dutch or English settlers in the New England states. Another speculation suggests the Dutch form was Jan Kaas, "John Cheese", from the prevalence of dairy-farming among the Dutch, but this seems far-fetched. More realistically, Michael Quinion and Patrick Hanks arguethe term refers to the Dutch nickname and surname Janke, anglicized to Yanke and "used as a nickname for a Dutch-speaking American in colonial times". By extension, according to their theory, the term grew to include non-Dutch American colonists as well.
One influence on the use of the term throughout the years has been the song Yankee Doodle, which was popular at the time of the American Revolutionary War (1775–1783). Though the British intended to insult the colonials with the song, following the Battle of Concord, it was adopted by Americans as a proud retort and today is the state song of Connecticut.
An early use of the term outside the United States was in the creation of Sam Slick, the "Yankee Clockmaker", in a column in a newspaper in Halifax, Nova Scotia Canada, in 1835. The character was a plain-talking American who served to poke fun at American and Nova Scotian customs of that era, while trying to urge the old-fashioned Canadians to be as clever and hard-working as the Yankees.
The "damned Yankee" usage dates from 1812. During and after the American Civil War (1861–1865) Confederates popularized it as a derogatory term for their Northern enemies.

Yankee cultural history

The term Yankee now means residents of New England, of English ancestry, although that was not the original definition. (See origin of the term above). The Yankees diffused widely across the northern United States, leaving their imprint in New York, the upper Midwest, and places as far away as Seattle, San Francisco and Honolulu. Yankees typically lived in villages (rather than separate farms), which fostered local democracy in town meetings; stimulated mutual oversight of moral behavior and emphasized civic virtue. From New England seaports like Boston, Salem, Providence and New London, the Yankees built an international trade, stretching to China by 1800. Much of the merchant profits were reinvested in the textile and machine tools industries.
In religion New England Yankees originally followed the Puritan tradition as expressed in Congregational churches, but after 1750 many became Episcopalians, Methodists, Baptists or Unitarians. Strait-laced 17th century moralism described by novelist Nathaniel Hawthorne faded in the 18th century. The First Great Awakening (under Jonathan Edwards) in the mid-18th century and the Second Great Awakening in the early 19th century (under Charles Grandison Finney) emphasized personal piety, revivals, and devotion to civic duty. Theologically Arminianism replaced the original Calvinism. Horace Bushnell introduced the idea of Christian nurture, whereby children would be brought to religion without revivals.
After 1800 the Yankees (along with the Quakers) spearheaded most reform movements, including abolition, temperance, women's rights and women's education. Emma Willard and Mary Lyons pioneered in the higher education of women, while Yankees comprised most of the reformers who went South during Reconstruction in the 1860s to educate the Freedmen.
Politically, the Yankees, who dominated New England, much of upstate New York, and much of the upper Midwest, were the strongest supporters of the new Republican party in the 1860s. This was especially true for the Congregationalists and Presbyterians among them and (after 1860), the Methodists. A study of 65 predominantly Yankee counties showed they voted only 40% for the Whigs in 1848 and 1852, but became 61–65% Republican in presidential elections of 1856 through 1864.
The Ivy League universities and "Little Ivies" liberal arts colleges, particularly Harvard and Yale, remained bastions of old Yankee culture until well after World War II.
President Calvin Coolidge was a striking example of the Yankee type. Coolidge moved from rural Vermont to urban Massachusetts, and was educated at Amherst College. Yet his flint-faced unprepossessing ways and terse rural speech proved politically attractive: "That Yankee twang will be worth a hundred thousand votes", explained one Republican leader. Coolidge's laconic ways and dry humor was characteristic of stereotypical rural "Yankee humor" at the turn of the twentieth century.
The fictional character Thurston Howell, III, of Gilligan's Island, a graduate of Harvard University, typifies the old Yankee elite in a comical way.
In the 21st century the systematic Yankee ways had permeated the entire society through education. Although many observers from the 1880s onward predicted that Yankee politicians would be no match for new generations of ethnic politicians, the presence of Yankees at the top tier of politics in the 21st century was typified by Presidents George H. W. Bush, Democratic National Chairman Howard Dean and Democratic presidential nominee Senator John Forbes Kerry, scion of the old colonial Forbes family.

Contemporary uses

In the United States

Within the United States, the term Yankee can have many different contextually and geographically-dependent meanings.
Traditionally Yankee was most often used to refer to a New Englander (in which case it may suggest Puritanism and thrifty values), but today refers to anyone coming from a state north of the Potomac River, with a specific focus still on New England. However, within New England itself, the term refers more specifically to old-stock New Englanders of English descent. The term WASP, in use since the 1960s, refers by definition to all Protestants of English ancestry, including Yankees and Southerners, though its meaning is often extended to refer to any Protestant white American.
The term "Swamp Yankee" is used in rural Rhode Island, eastern Connecticut, and southeastern Massachusetts to refer to Protestant farmers of moderate means and their descendants (as opposed to upper-class Yankees). Scholars note that the famous Yankee "twang" survives mainly in the hill towns of interior New England. The most characteristic Yankee food was the pie; Yankee author Harriet Beecher Stowe in her novel Oldtown Folks celebrated the social traditions surrounding the Yankee pie.
In the American South, the term is sometimes used as a derisive term for Northerners, especially those who have migrated to the South. As some Southerners put it, "A Yankee is a Northerner, and a Damnyankee [written and pronounced as one word] is a Northerner who moves (or comes) South". In an old joke, a Southerner states, "I was 21 years old before I learned that 'damn' and 'yankee' were separate words."
A humorous aphorism attributed to E.B. White summarizes these distinctions:
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.
Another variant of the aphorism replaces the last line with: "To a Vermonter, a Yankee is somebody who still uses an outhouse." There are several other folk and humorous etymologies for the term.
One of Mark Twain's most famous novels, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court popularized the word as a nickname for residents of Connecticut.
It is also the official team nickname of a Major League Baseball franchise, the New York Yankees. It originated from sportswriters looking for synonyms for "Americans", the club being a member of the American League.
A play on that title became the title of a book about the ball club's dynasty: The Magnificent Yankees.

In other English-speaking countries

In English-speaking countries outside the United States, especially in Australia, Canada, Ireland, New Zealand and the United Kingdom, Yankee, almost universally shortened to Yank, is used as a derogatory, playful or referential colloquial term for the U.S. citizens.
In certain Commonwealth countries, notably the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, "Yank" has been in common use since at least World War II, when thousands of Americans were stationed in the UK, Australia and New Zealand. Depending on the country, "Yankee" may be considered mildly derogatory.
The term has evolved, through the use of Cockney Rhyming Slang, to the word "Septic Tank", or just "Septic". This slang form is heard in Australia, as well. (Yankee - Yank - Septic Tank - Septic - Seppo) in Australia.

In other parts of the world

In some parts of the world, particularly in Latin American countries, and in East Asia, yankee or yanqui is used sometimes as an insult politically associated with anti-Americanism and used in expressions such as "Yankee go home" or "we struggle against the yanqui, enemy of mankind" (words from the Sandinista anthem).
In Argentina and Paraguay, however, the term refers to someone who is from the US and is hardly ever derogatory.
In the late 19th century the Japanese were called "the Yankees of the East" in praise of their industriousness and drive to modernization. In 21st century Japan, the term Yankī is used to refer to a type of delinquent youth who often sports brightly bleached hair. Etymology of the word is disputed, although one of the theories suggest the word comes from the English word "yankee."
In Finland, the word jenkki (yank) is commonly used to refer to any American, and Jenkkilä (Yankeeland) refers to the United States itself. It isn't considered very offensive or anti-American, but rather a spoken language expression.
The variation, "Yankee Air Pirate" was used during the Vietnam War in North Vietnamese propaganda to refer to the United States Air Force.


Further reading

  • Beals, Carleton; Our Yankee Heritage: New England's Contribution to American Civilization (1955) online
  • Conforti, Joseph A. Imagining New England: Explorations of Regional Identity from the Pilgrims to the Mid-Twentieth Century (2001) online
  • Bushman, Richard L. From Puritan to Yankee: Character and the Social Order in Connecticut, 1690–1765 (1967)
  • Ellis, David M. "The Yankee Invasion of New York 1783–1850". New York History (1951) 32:1–17.
  • Fischer, David Hackett. Albion's Seed: Four British Folkways in America (1989), Yankees comprise one of the four
  • Gjerde; Jon. The Minds of the West: Ethnocultural Evolution in the Rural Middle West, 1830–1917 (1999) online
  • Gray; Susan E. The Yankee West: Community Life on the Michigan Frontier (1996) online
  • Oscar Handlin, "Yankees", in Harvard Encyclopedia of American Ethnic Groups, ed. by Stephan Thernstrom, (1980) pp 1028–1030.
  • Hill, Ralph Nading. Yankee Kingdom: Vermont and New Hampshire. (1960).
  • Holbrook, Stewart H. Yankee Exodus: An Account of Migration from New England (1950)
  • Holbrook, Stewart H.; Yankee Loggers: A Recollection of Woodsmen, Cooks, and River Drivers (1961)
  • Hudson, John C. "Yankeeland in the Middle West", Journal of Geography 85 (Sept 1986)
  • Jensen, Richard. "Yankees" in Encyclopedia of Chicago (2005).
  • Kleppner; Paul. The Third Electoral System 1853–1892: Parties, Voters, and Political Cultures University of North Carolina Press. 1979, on Yankee voting behavior
  • Knights, Peter R.; Yankee Destinies: The Lives of Ordinary Nineteenth-Century Bostonians (1991) online
  • Mathews, Lois K. The Expansion of New England (1909).
  • Mencken, H. L. The American Language (1919, 1921)
  • Piersen, William Dillon. Black Yankees: The Development of an Afro-American Subculture in Eighteenth-Century New England (1988)
  • Power, Richard Lyle. Planting Corn Belt Culture (1953), on Indiana
  • Rose, Gregory. "Yankees/Yorkers", in Richard Sisson ed, The American Midwest: An Interpretive Encyclopedia (2006) 193–95, 714–5, 1094, 1194,
  • Sedgwick, Ellery; The Atlantic Monthly, 1857–1909: Yankee Humanism at High Tide and Ebb (1994) online
  • Smith, Bradford. Yankees in Paradise: The New England Impact on Hawaii (1956)
  • Taylor, William R. Cavalier and Yankee: The Old South and American National Character (1979)
  • WPA. Massachusetts: A Guide to Its Places and People. Federal Writers' Project of the Works Progress Administration of Massachusetts (1937).


  • Butsee H. Logemay, "The Etymology of 'Yankee'", Studies in English Philology in Honor of Frederick Klaeber, (1929) pp 403–13.
  • Fleser, Arthur F. "Coolidge's Delivery: Everybody Liked It." Southern Speech Journal 1966 32(2): 98–104. Issn: 0038-4585
  • Harold Davis. "On the Origin of Yankee Doodle", American Speech, Vol. 13, No. 2 (Apr., 1938), pp. 93–96 in JSTOR
  • Kretzschmar, William A. Handbook of the Linguistic Atlas of the Middle and South Atlantic States (1994)
  • Lemay, J. A. Leo "The American Origins of Yankee Doodle", William and Mary Quarterly 33 (Jan 1976) 435–64
  • Mathews, Mitford M. A Dictionary of Americanisms on Historical Principles (1951) pp 1896 ff for elaborate detail
  • Ruth Schell, "Swamp Yankee", American Speech, 1963, Volume 38, No.2 (The American Dialect Society, Published by Duke University Press ), pg. 121–123. accessed through JSTOR
  • Oscar G. Sonneck. Report on "the Star-Spangled Banner" "Hail Columbia" "America" "Yankee Doodle" (1909) pp 83ff online
  • Stollznow, Karen. 2006. "Key Words in the Discourse of Discrimination: A Semantic Analysis. PhD Dissertation: University of New England., Chapter 5.
Yankee in Bulgarian: Янки
Yankee in Danish: Yankee (skældsord)
Yankee in German: Yankee
Yankee in Spanish: Yanqui
Yankee in Korean: 양키
Yankee in Italian: Yankee
Yankee in Dutch: Yankee (scheldwoord)
Yankee in Japanese: ヤンキー
Yankee in Polish: Jankes
Yankee in Russian: Янки
Yankee in Chinese: 洋基

Synonyms, Antonyms and Related Words

Acadian, Anglo-Indian, Bolshevik, Bolshevist, Bolshie, Brooklynese, Cajun, Canadian French, Carbonarist, Carbonaro, Castroist, Castroite, Charley, Cockney, Communist, Cong, Down-Easter Yankee, Easterner, Fenian, French Canadian, Guevarist, Gullah, Jacobin, Leninist, Maoist, Marxist, Mau-Mau, Midland, Midland dialect, New England dialect, New Englander, Northener, Northman, Pennsylvania Dutch, Puritan, Red, Red Republican, Roundhead, Sinn Feiner, Trotskyist, Trotskyite, VC, Vietcong, Westerner, Yankee Doodle, Yorkshire, anarch, anarchist, bonnet rouge, bundle of isoglosses, class dialect, criminal syndicalist, dialect, dialect atlas, dialect dictionary, eastlander, idiom, isogloss, linguistic atlas, linguistic community, linguistic island, local dialect, localism, northlander, patois, provincialism, rebel, red, regional accent, regionalism, revolutionary, revolutionary junta, revolutioner, revolutionist, revolutionizer, sans-culotte, sans-culottist, southlander, speech community, subdialect, subversive, syndicalist, terrorist, westlander
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