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Origins: Yankee Doodle

Yankee Doodle in Advertising

Yankee Doodle came to town
Riding on a pony;
Stuck a feather in his cap
And called it macaroni.

Yankee Doodle, keep it up,
Yankee Doodle dandy;
Mind the music and the step
And with the girls be handy.

A song that teases a boorish fool seems an odd choice as the anthem for Connecticut, but that it is.

The earliest lyric to survive comes from the late 1750s:
Brother Ephraim sold his Cow
And bought him a Commission;
And then he went to Canada
To fight for the Nation;

But when Ephraim he came home
He proved an arrant Coward,
He wouldn’t fight the Frenchmen there
For fear of being devour’d.

Plenty of alternative lyrics also exist.

The most commonly known version, quoted at the top of this entry, finds its origins in the French and Indian war, part of the Seven Years’ War (1754-63), and was sung by British officers to mock their Yankee counterparts.

The term ‘doodle’, meaning ‘fool’ is thought to be a corruption of the German dödel, meaning a simpleton.

The etymology of macaroni in this context is harder to place. There are three competing theories:

  1. It is a corruption of the Italian maccherone, meaning an unrefined fool;
  2. It references the type of wig known as a maccaroni and refers to the fops and dandies who wore the fashion;
  3. It references the starchy foodstuff, and refers to the young gentlemen who encountered it on the Grand Tour.

Dandies, commonly supposed to be outlandish dressers were in fact ‘studiously muted’, says Bill Bryson (on whose word I will believe almost anything). He goes on to say,

What distinguished Dandies was not the  richness of their plumage but the care with which they assembled themselves. It was all about getting a perfect line. They would spend hours making sure every crease and furl was perfect, unimprovable. A visitor, arriving at [famous Dandy George ‘Beau’ Brummell’s] to find the floor strewn with cravats, once asked Robinson, his long-suffering valet, what was going on. ‘Those,’ Robinson sighed,’ are our failures.’

Bill Bryson, At Home, p 547

The Yankee (from the Cherokee eankee, meaning ‘coward’) began as a term for Dutch settlers in New England, eventually evolving into a derogatory appellation for the soon to be American citizens during the Revolutionary War.

The song mocks a Yankee soldier who places a feather in his cap and so thinks he’s the bee’s knees. Given that the dandy that the English suppose the Yankee to emulate is not the figure of outragous foppery that they seem to think, one cannot help but think that ultimately, the joke is on them.


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