A Yankee By Any Other Name

Part 1 – Where did “Yankee” come from?

“Yankee” – a global word that tags a person irrevocably as being from the United States. We’ve heard it used with wry affection, in derision, with condemnation, and with pride.  Most Americans – especially those below the Mason-Dixon line – use it to refer to those U.S. citizens from the Northern States, particularly the Northeast. To non-Americans “Yankee” is synonymous with “American.”

But where did the word come from?

In truth, the etymology of “Yankee” is unclear, although there are several theories as to how the word entered the American-English language. Almost all of the leading theorists, however, agree that the word came from some form of Anglicization of colonial 17th century Dutch.

If you read my earlier blog (“Why New Yorkers Don’t Speak Dutch”, https://ourdistantsojourns.wordpress.com/) you’ve read my highly abbreviated history of the Dutch colonists in New Netherland (northeast to upper mid-Atlantic North America), and how, despite their short stay in Colonial America, indelibly influenced American values and persona, especially in the NY-lower New England region. What’s so interesting to me is how much of Dutch words you can find, still, in the New York area, and in the origins of “Yankee,” the personification of an American.

So here is a summary of possible etymology of “Yankee”:

(1)   Two popular Dutch names in Colonial times were “Jan” (pronounced “yawn”) and “Kees.” A few linguists argue that since often both names were paired together, somewhat like our “Billy Joe,” or “Mary Ellen,” or “Tommy Lee,” that “Jan Kees” came, over time, to refer to Dutch colonials themselves, or the English who settled in the Dutch colonies in the New Netherland.

(2)   Another set of etymologists (yes, people really do study this stuff!) believe that Yankee came from the Dutch “Janneke” which means, literally, “Little John” or “Johnny” (the suffix –eke is a diminutive in Dutch). Again, this term may originally have been used in referring to Dutch colonials, but later came to include English-speakers living in Dutch areas as well.

(3)   A third camp, which includes noted writer H.L. Mencken, believe the word “Yankee” developed from a derogatory term that Europeans and the English-speaking New world settlers used to refer to the Dutch: “Jan Kaas,” or, “John Cheese,” emphasizing  the strong association between Dutch and cheese. This camp argues that semi-derogatory names such as “Jan Kaas” have been similarly used for other nationalities, such as “John Bull” for English, or “Uncle Sam” for Americans, I mean, Yanks. And, with this particular epitaph “Yawn Kahs,”over time,  became “Yankees.”

Personally, I tend to favor this last theory, because you know what it means, don’t you? It means the Yankees are really Cheeseheads! Now wouldn’t that be something…seeing all those Yankee (baseball) fans decked out in yellow foam cheesehead hats like Wisconsinites!

Part 2 – Dutch Lives on in New York

The capital of New Netherland in North America was, of course, New Amsterdam. Then, as now, Manhattan was the center of trade and commerce to the known world. Although a fairly pluralistic society, despite being controlled by the Dutch West India Company, the Dutch influence decidedly dominated the area, and still can be seen today in everyday words, the city seal, area flags, and, yes, even a major New York sports team.

Take a tour around former New York City and even Long Island, and you can discern Dutch in many of the place names.  Amsterdam Avenue – that’s an obvious one. Brooklyn was once Breuklen, named after a small, riverside town close to me now in Utrecht. Harlem was named for Haarlem, a town west of Amsterdam. Flatbush was Vlackbos, Flushing was Flissing, Hempstead was Heemsteede. Part of The Bronx was once the farm of Jonas Bronck.

Yonkers has an interesting derivation. An early Dutch settler called Van der Donck acquired a huge tract of land – 24,000 acres — north and east of Manhattan. He worked the land, and built a sawmill that became so crucial to the local economy that eventually a road, and later a modern highway, were named after the sawmill – today’s Sawmill River Parkway.  In 17th century Dutch a young gentleman of property and wealth was called a Jonker or Yonkheer. Hence, the land soon was referred to as “the Jonker’s land,” then Anglicized to Yonkers.

File:First dutch flag.svg

Former Dutch flag 

Part 3 – Waving the Flag

While most of America might be a tad ignorant of our early Dutch influences, New Yorkers have not been lax. In 1915, the City of New York adopted as its official colors for the city and its flag the orange, blue and white of the Dutch colonial flag. The major difference is the city’s flag colors are vertically arranged, whereas the Dutch flag bears horizontal bars of the three colors. Additionally, the city seal bears two symbols that honor their Dutch heritage: the sails of a windmill, signifying the early, prosperous milling industry, and, the beaver, which was the mainstay of early trade and wealth as well as the symbol of the West India Company. The beaver is also the official animal of New York State.

At one time the NYC seal and flag bore the date 1664, the year the British wrested New Amsterdam from the Dutch, but in the mid-1970s, the city reconsidered its historical origins and  changed the date on the flag to 1625, the year that New Amsterdam was founded, and the true “birth” of what is now New York City.

New York City official flag

Bronx County has gone two steps closer to its Dutch origins. The county flag bears both the colors and horizontal bars of the former Dutch flag, and the center of the seal on the flag is the Dutch Bronck family arms:


Bronx County Flag

And now for what all have been waiting for: How on earth does a major NYC sports team honor the city’s Dutch heritage?

Since you asked:

And ever wonder why the New York Knicks official colors for years were blue, white and orange? I think you can put it together by now…  But just in case you all are slow on the uptake: according to the official NBA site, the original Knicks in 1946 chose the official colors of New York City as their own. And “knickerbocker” from which the Knicks derive their name also has Dutch roots in colonial New Netherland. “Knickerbocker” was a term used to refer to the Dutch settlers because of the shortened or rolled up pants they wore. Washington Irving immortalized the name both in literature and vernacular with his tongue-in-cheek histories of New York, and thus the epitaph became synonymous not just with New Yorkers of Dutch descent, but all New Yorkers. (For more on this read http://www.nba.com/knicks/history/whatsaknickerbocker.html)

So, from flags to place names to basketball to early political values and pluralism, you can clearly see just how much the Dutch influenced America. Now, who wants to convince about 2 million people that they should change their city’s name back to New Amsterdam?