March 26, 2009

Dictionary of American Regional English

We should all be tickled to learn that the Dictionary of American Regional English project has come to fruition with the publication of the final volumes. According to a rumor some years back, the project died for lack of funding, but apparently that information was either false or out of date. For those interested in language, DARE is a virtual museum of American history and culture.

In connection with the publication of DARE’s final volumes, I propose that Lexiblog’s contributors launch a series of posts on regional American dialects and, in general, the history of American English. I’ll start.


If a single word had to bear the entire weight of American history and folklore, “Yankee” is perhaps the only one with the chops to do the job. One of the earliest tunes we think of as distinctly American is “Yankee Doodle.” The very title conjures images of tricornes and muskets, of fifes and rums, of Lexington, Concord, the midnight ride of Paul Revere—in short, the birth of the nation.

So when composer George M. Cohan wanted to tap reservoirs of shared American experience, all he had to do was proclaim,

I’m a Yankee Doodle dandy,
Yankee Doodle do or die,

and we somehow knew just what he meant. We continue to thrill at the promise of Yankee grit enshrined in

Over there, over there,
Send the word, send the word, over there,
That the Yanks are coming,
The Yanks are coming.

And when the do-or-die Marines in Guadalcanal Diary huddle around the radio, eager for the baseball scores from home, do they give a Yankee shilling about the Pirates, the Reds, or the Sox (of either hue)? Nope—they want to know if the Yankees won. For only a team called the Yankees could be America’s team, a suitable emblem for American innocence and American will.

Adding to “Yankee’s” aura are its misty origins. One early legend held that it came from Indian efforts to pronounce “English.” Another was that it originated with a Cambridge, Massachusetts, farmer name Jonathan Hasting, a.k.a. “Yankee Hastings.” He was said to have often used “Yankee” in the sense of “excellent,” and so the word caught on as a suitable sobriquet for the region and its people.

In fact, “Yankee” dates to seventeenth-century Europe, and its earliest associations were none too favorable. British sailors used the name both for the Dutch and for Dutch ships—much as “Ivan” was World War II shorthand for the Russians. A plausible origin is the Dutch name Janke, a diminutive of Jan, that most Dutch sounding of Dutch names. Another is Jan Kees, or “John Cheese,” a patronizing name the British gave to the New England colonists.

By the mid-1700s, the Brits had transferred “Yankee” from the Dutch to New Englanders, and to America generally. But it was still a taunt, as one military record from the time illustrates: “By night, the British soldiers abused the watch-men on duty, and the young children of Boston by the wayside, making mouths at them, call them Yankeys, shewing their posteriors, and clapping their hands thereon.” And every generation of kids thinks that it invented mooning withal.

So with a view to adding a little luster to the name, New Englanders invented a legend. They claimed that “Yankee” came from the “Yankos,” a tribe of Massachusetts Indians whose name meant “the Invincibles.” The New England boast was that the Yankos were so awed by the martial prowess of their conquerors that they bestowed their own name on them.

Interestingly, this tall tale was pooh-poohed not by the British but by the good citizens of Virginia. It seems the Virginians had gotten themselves into a bit of a wax when their northern neighbors failed to lend them a hand against the Cherokee. So the Virginians proposed their own Indian origin for the word: that “Yankee” came from the Cherokee eankke, meaning “coward” or “slave.” Incidentally, the so-called “Yankee and Pennamite War” of 1769, a land dispute between Connecticut and Pennsylvania, is one more reminder that our colonial forebears were not always very forbearing—and that where a storm blew up, the Yankees could usually be found nearby.

For the British, “Yankee” was a term of amused contempt, but a funny thing happened on the way to Yorktown, and Americans came to wear the name as a badge of honor. In the 1800s, even Ohio got into the act, gracefully accepting the name “Yankee State” from Kentucky bargemen struck by the number of New Englanders settling the state. Of course, during the Civil War, the Confederacy turned “Yankee” once again into a sneer, despite Rhett Butler’s view that Yankees “are pretty much like Southerners—except with worse manners, of course, and terrible accents.” The South scoffed at the Union ironclad Monitor by called it a “Yankee cheese box on a raft.” A Union sympathizer from the South was a “galvanized Yankee”—coated on the outside but something different underneath.

Throughout its ups and downs, “Yankee” has remained a codeword for something unique and unmistakable in the American character. “Yankee grit” is that unflinching, persevering courage that took American troops across the Pacific to the top of Mount Suribachi. “Yankee Doodle Dandyism” suggests an enterprising, freebooting side to American life. Even the word’s darker hues are recognizably American. A “Yankee trick” suggests cunning and deception, but also a kind of unsophisticated horse sense. And while no one would volunteer to wear the latest in “Yankee jackets” (tar and feathers), the term hints at a brash, unruly quality we sometimes rank as a national virtue, for good or ill.

And so “Yankee” has become a “made in the USA” label. “Yankee peddlers” sell “Yankee notions” out of “Yankee carts” to . . . well, to Yankees. There’s Yankee clippers, jibs, clocks chowder, pot roast, run, nutmeg, nut cake. There’s just plain “Yankees” (nineteenth-century American stocks) and just plain “Yankee” (sweetened whiskey). We can “yankee” folks, and if they try to beat us at our own game, we can “out-yankee” them—with the help of a little Yankee know-how. There are western Yankees, homemade Yankees, Connecticut Yankees, Virginia Yankees.

And, the most endearing and enduring species of them all, damn Yankees.

Michael J. O'Neal's novel about Civil War espionage, Crazy Bett, is available at

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