December 09, 2003

It's yankees all the way down

Well, for four levels at least.

Over the past month, I've contributed a few posts to the on-going discussion about hierarchical ontologies and the semantic web, while David Beaver recently explored the recursive identity of a beaver played by a beaver played by... A couple of days ago, a foreign student' asked me to explain what "yankee" means, and I responded with a traditional jokey definition that makes the word into a sort of semi-recursive identity ontology all its own:

For foreigners, a "yankee" is an American. For American southerners, a "yankee" is a northerner. For northerners, a "yankee" is somebody from New England. For New Englanders, a "yankee" is somebody from Vermont. For Vermonters, a "yankee" is somebody who eats apple pie for breakfast.

You can find versions of this definition on the internet in places as diverse as a recipe for Tuna Roll-ups and the Sylvia Plath forum. The fractal deconstruction of yankeehood generally ends with the pie-eating Vermonters, though I've heard variants that also mention a lack of indoor plumbing. In my experience, the definition is roughly true, though the sociolinguistic details are naturally more complex.

When I was a child in rural eastern Connecticut, it was understood that only some of the people in our village were called "yankees" (which of course had nothing at all to do with the hated baseball team of the same name). Later on, I learned that these people were the descendents of the English immigrants who had settled the area in the late 17th century, but when I was six or so, the characteristics that I associated with "yankees" included keeping a few farm animals on the side, trapping to earn a little extra money from furs, making hooked rugs from old socks, and shooting at garden pests rather than merely cursing at them. Although I participated in such activities with friends and neighbors, mine was certainly not a Yankee family in the local sense, and so it still takes me aback when I realize that some Texan or Virginian regards me as a Yankee.

I suppose that the hierarchy of Yankee significations must have arisen through successive layers of part-for-whole reference, combined with the distillation of prototypical characteristics in the mode of "real programmers" jokes. Both of these are common processes in the history of word meanings, but I can't think of any other word that has achieved so many well-defined contextual layers.

The OED suggests that the oppositions north/south and New Englander/other were implicit from the beginning, since the first two citations by date are:

1765 Oppression, a Poem by an American (with notes by a North Briton) 17 From meanness first this Portsmouth Yankey rose. Note, ‘Portsmouth Yankey’, It seems, our hero being a New-Englander by birth, has a right to the epithet of Yankey; a name of derision, I have been informed, given by the Southern people on the Continent, to those of New-England: what meaning there is in the word, I never could learn.
1775 J. TRUMBULL McFingal I. 1 When Yankies, skill'd in martial rule, First put the British troops to school. Editor's note, Yankies, a term formerly of derision, but now merely of distinction, given to the people of the four eastern States.

The etymology is "unascertained", according to the OED, which nevertheless goes on to say that

[t]he two earliest statements as to its origin were published in 1789: Thomas Anburey, a British officer who served under Burgoyne in the War of Independence, in his Travels II. 50 derives Yankee from Cherokee eankke slave, coward, which he says was applied to the inhabitants of New England by the Virginians for not assisiting them in a war with the Cherokees; William Gordon in Hist. Amer. War states that it was a favourite word with farmer Jonathan Hastings of Cambridge, Mass., c 1713, who used it in the sense of ‘excellent’. Appearing next in order of date (1822) is the statement which has been most widely accepted, viz. that the word has been evolved from North American Indian corruptions of the word English through Yengees to Yankees ...
Perhaps the most plausible conjecture is that it comes from Du. Janke, dim. of Jan John, applied as a derisive nickname by either Dutch or English in the New England states (J. N. A. Thierry, 1838, in Life of Ticknor, 1876, II. vii. 124).

In my personal childhood experience, Yankees mostly had sausage, eggs and toast for breakfast. However, the idea of apple pie for Yankee breakfast is historically well founded, as this page on "The American Apple Heritage" explains:

In the primitive colonial American farmhouse, apples were a primary staple of the family diet. Apples would be served as part of a main course, at breakfast, lunch or dinner. During winter months, many households relied heavily on apples for sustenance. ... Apples could be stored longer than other fruits, some for more than six months. Fruit was stored in a Dutch cellar where it never froze under ground. The cellar was constructed at the foot of a rising ground, about 18 feet long and six feet wide. It was walled up about seven feet from the ground and had a strong sod covered roof. The door always faced the south. They buried the apples in fine white sand or covered them with straw on the cellar floor.

It must be in one of those Yankee cellars that Emily Dickinson's Apple stayed snug:

Like brooms of steel
The Snow and Wind
Had swept the Winter Street,
The House was hooked,
The Sun sent out
Faint Deputies of heat---
Where rode the Bird
The Silence tied
His ample, plodding Steed,
The Apple in the cellar snug
Was all the one that played.


Posted by Mark Liberman at December 9, 2003 06:48 AM