Farewell, My Lovely Sanity
Dear Word Detective: How about the word “yank” or “yankee” — where and how did that originate? — Jeff Tregoning.
The Word Detective slowly climbed the long flight of stairs to his small office in a dingy building on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. Wearily, he slumped into his worn desk chair, casually tossed his fedora out the window and retrieved a dusty bottle from the bottom drawer of his battered desk. Brushing aside a pile of worn-out adverbs, he poured himself a double shot of Old Webster’s. “It’s the simple questions,” he remarked to the large orange cat, awakened from his all-day nap atop a pile of dictionaries, “The simple questions that really drive a guy nuts.”
“Listen to this one,” he continued after pausing to refill his glass. “This guy writes me with a question, a slow-pitch softball question, the kind of question any two-bit hick etymologist should be able to answer with a Golden Book Children’s Dictionary and a box of crayons.”
He rubbed his eyes. “Where does ‘yankee’ come from, the guy asks me. Piece of cake, right? I check the dictionaries. First the little ones, then the big ones, then the really obscure ones. Dictionaries of Scottish farm terminology, Panamanian gamblers’ lingo, The Girl Guides Glossary, everywhere, but the cupboard is bare as my bank account in January. Not a clue. I ask around. No dice. Nobody knows. They figure it first showed up in America around the time of the Revolutionary War, but past that the trail goes cold. Nada. Zippo. I spend all day plowing through every library in town and all I’ve got to show for it is a bunch of half-baked theories and a headache the size of the Oxford English Dictionary. The twenty-volume edition.”
The cat cleared his throat hesitantly, then suggested, “But what about the Indians? Wasn’t there supposedly a Yanko tribe or a word in Cherokee that sounded like ‘yankee’?”
“Hogwash,” the Word Detective snarled, “Total rubbish. No such tribe, no such word. File not found. Likewise the bit about it being from the Persian word for ‘warlike man.’ That turned out to be a joke some mug was playing on Noah Webster.”
He reached for the bottle again but the cat got there first and drained it. He pretended not to notice. After all, the cat worked cheap.
Night was coming. The Word Detective lit a cigarette, then thought better of it and tossed it into a box of reader mail sitting in the corner.
The cat sighed, then brightened. “What about ‘Yankee Doodle Dandy’? Maybe the word came from the song.”
“Fuggeddaboudit, chum,” the Detective smiled ironically, “You’re thinking cats before kittens. Word first, then song. The only thing interesting about that song is that the Redcoats used to sing it to razz the Colonists. But after the Minutemen whipped King George at Lexington and Concord, the Colonists decided to sing the song themselves. By the time we got to Yorktown, ‘Yankee Doodle Dandy’ had turned into a swan song for the Brits.”
The cat laid down ponderously, fell asleep briefly, and promptly rolled off the edge of the desk.
“While you’re down there,” said the Word Detective, “see if you can find me a time machine. Without one of those, I think we may just be out of luck. This is one tough nut to crack.”
“The only theory I’ve heard that even comes close,” he continued as the cat pulled himself up from the floor, “is the one about the early Dutch settlers around New York calling the English ‘Jan Kees,’ or ‘John Cheese,’ their idea of an deadly insult. Go figure. I guess you had to be there.”
The cat looked puzzled, then asked, “But how did we get from the Dutch calling the British ‘John Cheese’ to the Brits calling the Colonists ‘yankees’?”
With a look of quiet determination, the Word Detective rose from his desk and headed toward the door. “That’s what I aim to nail down right now, Bucko,” he said, glancing around the office, “just as soon as I find my hat.”