Not to mention the damp, tasteless pizza.

Dear Word Detective:  “Yokel,” meaning a country bumpkin, is pretty well known, but where does it come from?  Perhaps from its rhyming with “local”?  “Local yokel” is often heard, but then there must be, by implication, alien or visiting yokels.  Any chance it has some Scandinavian roots: “yoke” for joke?  A local joke with a Scandinavian accent becomes “local yoke”?  Or am I way off base? — Barney Johnson.

Well, you may be wandering a bit, but under the circumstances, that’s understandable.  “Yokel” is a pretty strange word. By the way, your musing on “alien yokels” rang a bell with me.  After living in a rural area for more than ten years now, I’m firmly convinced that some of our neighbors are not native to this solar system. I know it sounds crazy, but think about it. Wouldn’t it make more sense for invaders from outer space to colonize the boondocks than to try to blend into our cities?  Especially if their species subsisted on weird stuff like sausage gravy and Jello with marshmallows and mayonnaise?  Makes sense to me.  It would certainly explain banjos.

“Yokel” is one of a number of derogatory terms applied to dwellers in rural areas by people living in, or at least closer to, big cities.  Along with such terms as “hick,” “rube,” “hayseed,” “bumpkin,” “clodhopper” and “yahoo,” “yokel” implies that the person is not only unsophisticated and provincial, but probably uneducated and intellectually impaired as well.

“Yokel” isn’t quite as old as one might suspect, first appearing in English in the early 19th century (in the spelling “youkell”).  The origin of “yokel” is, unfortunately, uncertain, but there are two plausible theories about its source.  The simpler theory traces “yokel” to the German personal name “Jokel” (Jacob).  The tradition of calling country dwellers by names thought to be typically rustic is well-established; both “rube” (from Reuben) and “hick” (a “pet”  form of Richard) follow this pattern.

A more interesting theory, also with some precedent, traces “yokel” meaning “hick” to the old English dialect term “yokel” as a name for the green woodpecker, a bird fairly common in Europe.  “Yokel” as the name of the bird was apparently formed as an imitation of its distinctive call.

The use of the name of a woodpecker as a general term for a “hick” has an interesting parallel in the use of “peckerwood” (a simple reversal of “woodpecker”) as slang, especially among African-Americans in the southern states, for a poor rural white person (“Even a Delta peckerwood would look after even a draggle-tail better than that,” Go Down Moses, Faulkner, 1942).

Why woodpeckers?  To someone visiting the country from the city, a woodpecker would be a highly noticeable novelty, and thus a fitting emblem of country life.  Humans also have a very old habit of comparing people they regard as stupid to birds (e.g., “bird brain,” “dodo” and “silly goose”).  Today the term “yokel” is almost always found in the phrase “local yokel,” and it’s likely that the rhyme has contributed greatly to the persistence of “yokel” in the popular lexicon.

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