The word yankee has several meanings that refer to people from different geographical regions: it can refer to a New Englander, to a person from the northern states (especially to a Union soldier during the Civil War), or to a person from anywhere in the United States. The first known attestation of the word Yankee is found in a letter from 1758 by General James Wolfe—he used it as a term of contempt for the American colonial troops in his command. The song Yankee Doodle, which in early versions was sung by British troops to mock colonial Americans, originally used Yankee in this way: Yankee Doodle came to town / For to buy a firelock / We will tar and feather him / And so we will John Hancock. However, colonial American soldiers turned the derisive epithet around and adopted it as a term of national pride.
Many theories of the origin of this term Yankee have been advanced over the years. People already wondered about the word in 1809, when Washington Irving wrote a humorous explanation of the word as coming from a term that ”in the Tchusaeg (or Massachusett) language signifies silent men.” More serious proposals of a Native American origin of the word have also been made. Some have suggested, for example, that Yankee derives from the pronunciation of the English word English in one of the languages of the Native Americans. However, no form resembling Yankee has been found in records of any Native American language.
According to what is perhaps the most popular theory of the origin of Yankee, it comes from Dutch Janke or Janneke, which are variants of Jantje, “Johnnie,” the diminutive of Jan, the Dutch equivalent of the English name John. In this theory, Janke or Janneke would have originally been used in English as a nickname for Dutch settlers living along the Hudson River and then later extended to New Englanders. This theory finds some support in the application of the term Yanky, perhaps as a nickname, to a certain Dutch pirate active in the Caribbean in the 1680s. According to yet another theory, Yankee originated as a nickname or informal term for a Dutch person deriving from Jan Kees, a compound name made up of Jan and the common Dutch name Kees, short for Cornelius. Ultimately, however, there is not enough evidence to confirm any of these theories, and the origin of Yankee remains unknown.
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