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Yankee Doodle

Author Kevin Shortsleeve
Air Date 7/3/2002

Yankee Doodle Transcript

Yankee Doodle went to town,
Riding on a pony.
Stuck a feather in his hat
and called it Macaroni.

If you think about it, it is a little bit odd that the unofficial American anthem is a nonsensical nursery rhyme. The song itself Yankee Doodle-and even the word Yankee-are both of doubtful origins and have meant many things, indeed, over the years.
Some believe the word Yankee came from the Scottish or Gaelic word ‘Yankie’ which means a shrewd, clever woman. Some theories tie the term to native American origins suggesting that Canadian Indian’s attempting to pronounce the French word for English, Anglais, first spoke the word as Yenghees. Another theory, unproven, claims the word eankke was first a Cherokee term for coward or slave.

One of the more accepted theories is that the term Yankee came from the Dutch word “Janke” which is the familiar version of the name Jan. As early as 1683, Dutch sailors were said to be singing about ‘Janke’ and there is an old, nonsensical, Dutch harvest song that will ring very familiar to American ears.

Yanker didee dudel down
Didee dudel lawnter;
Yankee viver, voover, vown,
Botermelk und Tawnter

One thing that is known for sure is that in the 1700s, Virginians adopted the name Yankee to refer derisively to New Englanders who had refused to assist them in their war with the Cherokees. Very early in the American Revolution, British soldiers latched on to the negative connotations of the term, and began to refer to all colonists as Yankees.

After the battle of Bunker Hill, however, it was used by the Americans to taunt the British. Some believe the fifteen-verse song, “The Yankees Return from Camp” was written by a colonial soldier at the Provincial Camp, near Cambridge, Massachusetts in 1775. Dressed in ragged, makeshift uniforms, American rebels wanted to make fun of the fantastically uniformed British Troops. From this song we get the phrase “stuck a feather in his hat and called it macaroni.” A macaroni here refers, not to Italian pasta, but to one who wears something silly on their head in order to appear stylish.

Today, the term Yankee has come to mean shrewdness, thrift, and ingenuity. As a national song Yankee Doodle stands as an irreverent reminder that we Americans are supposed mock those who would prance about grandly. But it is also a nursery rhyme-and there we find our song, sung from the mouths of children, with lyrics that are, like America hopefully, forever playful and young at heart.

Works Consulted:
The Annotated Mother Goose, William and Ciel Barring-Gould.
Hans Brinker or the Silver Skates by Mary Maples Dodge
The Oxford Companion to Children’s Literature – 1999
Comptons Encyclopedia – 1958
Encyclopaedia Britannica – 1991

Funk and Wagnalls New Encyclopaedia – 1981

Posted in Culture, Music