Happy Yankee Doodle Day

To get to where we are today with the use of the word Yankee, we have to go back in time to Great Britain.  There are two things to discuss here: the melody of the song, and the words used in the song.  The melody is believed to have originated in Holland in the 15th Century, and may have had several applications over a few hundred years.  Nevertheless, the melody was later adopted by the British.

The word “Yankee” is an expression used by Dutch settlers at New Amsterdam (present-day New York); it was pronounced “Yanka,” meaning “Little John,” referring to English settlers in Connecticut who were the primary competitors with the Dutch.  Yanka eventually translated into Yankee; it was a belittling remark applied to all English colonials by the rest of the European world at the time.

The tune “Yankee Doodle” appears to have been first used by the British in 1754, during the French and Indian Wars. It was a song popular among the British for belittling American colonists who formed militias to support the British Army.  These colonials were hardly as well dressed (or as well trained) as their British soldier counterparts, and often they used all manner of weapons that were significantly inferior to the British rifle.  Worse, however, the British soldier scorned the fighting spirit of the colonial conscript.  The original song went something like this:

Brother Ephraim sold his cow, and bought him a commission

And then he went to Canada, to fight for the nation.

But when Ephraim[1], he came home, he proved an errant coward,

He wouldn’t fight the Frenchman there, for fear of being devoured.

Sheep’s head and vinegar, buttermilk and tansy

Boston is a Yankee town, sing “Hey doodle dandy.”

By 1776, the British lyrics had changed a bit reflecting even more scorn of the American colonist:

The Congress send great Washington, all clothed in power and breeches

To meet old Britain’s warlike sons and make some rebel speeches.

Yankee Doodle came to town, for to buy a firelock

We will tar and feather him, and so we will John Hancock.

Not to be undone, an American revolutionary and minuteman by the name of Edward Baines developed his own version of the tune:

Father and I went down to camp, along with Captain Gooding,

And there we saw the men and boys, as thick as hasty pudding.

Yankee Doodle keep it up, Yankee Doodle Dandy,

Mind the music and the step, and with the girls be handy.

Additional variations included:

Yankee Doodle is the tune, that we all delight in,

It suits for feasts, it suits for fun, and just as well for fighting.

As British soldiers sang Yankee Doodle to mock the American army and its militia, the Americans turned the song around to mock their British adversaries.

Thus, we can see the term “Yankee Doodle” actually originates from a popular British song speaking derisively at American colonists who, between 1763 and 1776, began to compete with British society in matters their standard of living.  The fact is that George Washington was somewhat obsessed with the notion that American colonists were every bit as sophisticated as Londoners; he spent a considerable fortune purchasing British made clothing and furnishings for himself and his wife, Martha.

As one may recall the song, Yankee Doodle went to town, riding on his pony; he stuck a feather in his hat and called in Macaroni, the term “Yankee” evolved into a derogatory British reference to colonials, and the word “doodle” meant among other things, a vain simpleton … a British suggestion that American colonists were intellectually inferior to the folks back home.  Apparently, the Brits had forgotten that in 1763, American colonials were also British.

As for the reference to placing a feather in one’s cap and calling it Macaroni, the term was used in England to describe someone who traveled throughout Europe, bringing back to England French and Italian fads in goods, attire, and hairstyle.  One of these goods was an Italian pasta called Macaroni.  In its daily usage, then, a Macaroni was someone putting on airs by adopting foreign culture, and whose personal appearance seemed to fall somewhere between a “fob” and a “dandy.”

The English themselves described this phenomenon as follows:

“There is indeed a kind of animal, neither male nor female, a thing of the neuter gender, lately started up among us.  It is called macaroni.  It talks without meaning, it smiles without pleasantry, it eats without appetite, it rides without exercise, and it wenches without passion.”

Hence, in mocking terms, one did not transform himself into a person of means or sophistication by simply placing a feather in his cap.  It was an expression equally applied to the dandies in England and the colonists in America.

There is an expression that goes like this: whatever goes around, comes around.  When the British surrendered at Yorktown, French Marquis de Lafayette taunted them by playing “Yankee Doodle Dandy.”  The song subsequently became a patriotic symbol of the Revolutionary War … I suppose because even if we Americans were simpletons, we still managed to defeat overwhelming British forces and secure our independence.  On that note, HAPPY INDEPENDENCE DAY, AMERICA!


[1] Today thought to refer to Colonel Ephraim Williams of the Massachusetts militia killed at the Battle of Lake George during the French and Indian War —hardly a fitting tribute to a British colonial citizen who gave his life for his country.

About Mustang

Retired Marine, historian, writer.
This entry was posted in HISTORY. Bookmark the permalink.

12 Responses to Happy Yankee Doodle Day

  1. Pablo says:

    A most wonderful and educational post on America’s birthdays!
    Safe travels.


  2. I hear the British were all at work yesterday…


    • Mustang says:

      In England one newspaper tweeted “How’s that independence thing working out for you?” A one clever response was “It was the first Brexit.”

      Liked by 1 person

  3. So George M. Cohen didn’t write it? 🙂


  4. kid says:

    Interesting stuff. I always learn something here. I happened to have run across this and thought you might be interested.



    • Mustang says:

      Thanks, Kid … History is what it is. One of these days, we’ll grab a case of beer and have a great conversation about America’s true legacy. Unhappily, that must include the fact that we have always been partisan in our political views, and hardly “united” about much at all.


  5. Baysider says:

    Whew – more than I thought there was to know. A denigrating term from a Dutchman. Interesting!

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Andy Houston says:

    Our language is full of antidote about the origins of words and expressions. This is among the more interesting of those.

    Liked by 1 person

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