And they’re bringing lots of peanut butter.
Dear Word Detective: I was listening to “Fascinatin’ Rhythm” on National Public Radio, and the theme was Memorial Day. The host Michael Lasser played Nora Bayes’ version of George M. Cohan’s “Over There.” In the second verse, unlike the familiar “The Yanks are coming” she sings “The Sammies are coming.” I had never heard this nickname for American soldiers before. Was it a popular nickname for doughboys in the period around WWI? Or was it Cohan trying to start a new word? — Max Urata.
Thanks for a great question, especially since I learned something in the course of researching it. Even better, as soon as I read your email, “Over There” started running through my head, mercifully replacing that dreadful “Hillary for You and Me” jingle that’s been lurking there, unbidden, for months. Incidentally, for those of you similarly afflicted, have you noticed that said ditty is a dead ringer for “I’d Like to Buy the World a Coke” (aka “I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing”) from the 1970s Coca-Cola ad campaign? Somebody ought to sue somebody.
The reason I’m so familiar with “Over There” is that “Yankee Doodle Dandy,” the famous 1942 biographical film about Cohan (starring the brilliant Jimmy Cagney as Cohan), was one of my father’s favorite movies, and I must have seen it at least twenty times while growing up. George M. Cohan (1878-1942) was a songwriter, playwright, lyricist, singer, dancer, actor and producer in the early 20th century, generally considered a musical genius, and famous as “the man who owned Broadway.” In addition to “Over There,” Cohan is known for his songs “Give My Regards to Broadway,” “The Yankee Doodle Boy” and “You’re a Grand Old Flag.”
Cohan wrote “Over There” just after the US entered the First World War in 1917, and the song was enormously popular during the war and recorded by several famous artists of the day. The lyrics of the chorus are, as far as I can tell, always cited as “Over there, over there, Send the word, send the word over there, That the Yanks are coming, the Yanks are coming, The drum’s rum-tumming everywhere….” “Yanks,” of course, is short for “Yankees,” slang for Americans.
But I did find a website (http://www.firstworldwar.com/audio/overthere.htm) offering vintage recordings of the song, and the version recorded by Nora Bayes in 1917 does change “Yanks” to “Sammies” in the second verse. But another 1917 recording, by Billy Murray, has “Yanks” in both verses. The second verse of the version by Enrico Caruso seems to be in Italian, which gets us nowhere.
“Sammies” was indeed popular slang of the day, primarily in Britain, for American soldiers in World War I, drawn from the iconic character of Uncle Sam as a symbol of the US. According to an article in Stars & Stripes from 1918, however, the “Sammies” themselves were less than thrilled with the name (“A Sammie may be defined as an American soldier as he appears in an English newspaper or a French cinema. It is a name he did not invent, does not like, never uses and will not recognize”).
So Cohan definitely did not invent “Sammie,” but whether it was ever properly part of his song or simply inserted by Nora Bayes we’ll probably never know. It may be significant that another patriotic song of the same period, by S.C. Dunn, was titled “The Sammies Are Coming.” Perhaps Ms. Bayes had heard Dunn’s song and decided to “improve” Cohan’s chorus on her own.