Peter Takes on History
May 29, 1942
Our Revolutionary Language
Good news! Late last night, deep in the research for this very story, I learned the answer to a question I've had since Kindergarten!
Okay, if I were to whistle a popular medieval tune called "All the way to Galway” you would recognize it immediately. You'd start singing, "Yankee Doodle came to London, riding on a pony ... " That's the tune. And the lyrics? Here they are in 15th Century Dutch:
"Yanker, didel, doodle down, Diddle, dudel, lanther, Yanke viver, voover vown, Botermilk und tanther.”
Now most of that is just gibberish; something playful sung by farmers and field hands, but you have to admit the first four words - yanker, didel, doodle down - are darned close to Yankee Doodle Dandy. So how did Americans become Yanker Didels? Well, it’s not hard to imagine a Dutch working song crossing the Atlantic to New Amsterdam. And there’s all kinds of circumstantial etymological evidence that connects the origin of the term Yankee with Dutch settlers including the fact that in Holland, the southern Dutch actually use a phrase Jan (YAN) Kees or Jan Kaas (KAYS), literally “John Cheese” as a nickname for northern Dutch farmers and that same derogatory term was used by Dutch residents of New Amsterdam to insult the poor, unsophisticated English farmers working north of the budding metropolis.
So, I submit that the Dutch settlers of New York contributed the term Yankee to the lexicon of early Colonial slang. And that’s just the tip of the idiomatic iceberg.
As the colonists began to take on an identity separate from their British forbears and with English being a notoriously flexible language, a lot of unique phrases and innovative slang sneaked in. And some stuck.
Take “Shaver.” As in “little shaver,” a gentle affront to a man too young for a beard. That’s a colonial expression that’s still around.
Portugese settlers brought the word “sabe” meaning “He knows”, Anglicized to “savvy.”
A lot of other slang was lost over the years. Colonial New Englanders used the word kedge K-E-D-G-E to mean “in good health.” Like, “I’m kedge, and you?” Chuffy C-H-U-F-F-Y. Definition? Impolite or rude.
SCRANCH was an onomatopoeic word used to describe the sound of cracking something with your teeth.
FISHY was a slang word for drunk - referring to the bleary eyes and slack jaw of the over served. Fishy was one of the 200 terms in the Drinker’s Dictionary Benjamin Franklin published in a 1737 issue of the Pennsylvania Gazette. Ben was known to enjoy his spirits but was likewise noted for his moderation. Claiming to either have invented or overheard, his list included fuddled, glazed, pungy, topheavy and one guaranteed unpronounceable by the besotted; nimptopsical.
Some Colonial slang I think deserves revival. Like a JOLLIFICATION, which means exactly what it should - a celebration or merrymaking.
And how about CIRCUMBENDIBUS meaning roundabout; as in the path I’ve taken to return to my promise.
So Yankee Doodle Dandy. We covered YANKEE.
In the 17th century DOODLE was a term for a silly, aimless fool. Maybe from the Low German dudeltopf or simpleton.
And we still know the word DANDY; implying a milquetoast man unduly devoted to fashion.
So, you have to wonder how we got from this string of insults used by British Soldiers to demean American Revolutionaries to our Yankee Doodle Dandy? The song that gives you shivers when Jimmy Cagney belts it out in the 1942 biographical musical film about George M. Cohan called "The Man Who Owned Broadway" released on this day in history, May 29th in 1942. (talk about CIRCUMBENDIBUS, huh?)
Well, the answer is, Colonials embraced the song. We kept the tune and added verses - literally hundreds of them. For every verse the Redcoats invented to insult the rag-tag hayseed Americans, the Americans tossed a verbal grenade back at them - ridiculing the oppressors and warning them about messing with the Minutemen. The Colonists never missed an opportunity to throw the tune in the Loyalist’s faces. Every time the British surrendered, the tune was played or sung, reminding the King’s armies that they are having their butts kicked by a bunch of Yankee Doodle Dandies.
One last bit of Colonial slang. In England during the mid 1700’s there were laughably festooned 20-somethings who wore exaggerated pointy shoes, frilly tunics and were known for their elaborate powdered wigs sporting twists and tubes as wacky as today’s shapes of macaroni. As a matter of fact, their outlandishly affected fashion was called "MACARONI."
So Yankee Doodle went to London riding on a pony, he stuck a feather in his cap and what did he call it? He called it MACARONI !