Blog Excerpts

The "Yanks" Are Coming: From Disparagement to Pride

Just in time for the 4th of July, our own Ben Zimmer investigates how the term "Yank" started off as a term of disparagement but was reclaimed as an expression of patriotic pride in settings from world wars to the World Cup.

In his latest column for The Wall Street Journal, Ben follows "Yank" from its roots as a sneering term for Dutch settlers in America all the way to its current incarnation, as used as a rallying cry for the American national team during the FIFA World Cup.

"The Yanks are coming!" It was a popular refrain among fans of the U.S. men's soccer team during this year's World Cup in Brazil—at least until the Yanks had to head home following their loss to Belgium Tuesday in the Round of 16.

The slogan first caught on in qualifying games for the 2010 World Cup, when it showed up in commercials for the national team. It works as a clever homage to "Over There," the 1917 song that stirred the nation as it entered World War I and popularized the use of "Yanks" to refer to Americans in general.

"Yank," like the fuller form "Yankee," has long led a double life as a term of both disparagement and pride. "Yankee" likely originated in the Dutch name "Janke," a diminutive of "Jan" that first served as a British put-down of Dutch settlers in the American colonies, eventually applied to provincial New Englanders. The song "Yankee Doodle" was intended to deride the locals, but it was embraced during the Revolutionary War as a patriotic marching song.

Still, the contemptuous use of both "Yankee" and "Yank" lingered, especially during the Civil War, when Southerners applied both words to their Northern enemies (often prefixed by "damned"). Overseas, especially in Great Britain, Americans regardless of their regional background could be called "Yanks" as a kind of jeering shorthand.

That all changed in June 1917, when the first American troops arrived in Europe to fight alongside the Allies. In their honor, George M. Cohan quickly composed "Over There" to encourage young men to enlist and to "send the word over there, that the Yanks are coming."

Read the rest of Ben's column here. And for an examination of the roots of another patriotic term, check out his Word Routes column on the origins of "Uncle Sam."

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