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Yan·kee (yăngkē)
1. A native or inhabitant of New England, especially one of English descent.
2. A native or inhabitant of a northern US state, especially a Union soldier during the Civil War.
3. A native or inhabitant of the United States.

[Origin unknown.]

Word History: The first known attestation of the word Yankee is found in a letter from 1758 by General James Wolfehe used it as a term of contempt for the American colonial troops in his command. The song Yankee Doodle, which in early versions was sung by British troops to mock colonial Americans, originally used Yankee in this way: Yankee Doodle came to town / For to buy a firelock / We will tar and feather him / And so we will John Hancock. However, colonial American soldiers turned the derisive epithet around and adopted it as a term of national pride. Many theories of the origin of this term Yankee have been advanced over the years. People already wondered about the word in 1809, when Washington Irving wrote a humorous explanation of the word as coming from a term that "in the Tchusaeg (or Massachusett) language signifies silent men." More serious proposals of a Native American origin of the word have also been made. Some have suggested, for example, that Yankee derives from the pronunciation of the English word English in one of the languages of the Native Americans. However, no form resembling Yankee has been found in records of any Native American language. According to what is perhaps the most popular theory of the origin of Yankee, it comes from Dutch Janke or Janneke, which are variants of Jantje, "Johnnie," the diminutive of Jan, the Dutch equivalent of the English name John. In this theory, Janke or Janneke would have originally been used in English as a nickname for Dutch settlers living along the Hudson River and then later extended to New Englanders. This theory finds some support in the application of the term Yanky, perhaps as a nickname, to a certain Dutch pirate active in the Caribbean in the 1680s. According to yet another theory, Yankee originated as a nickname or informal term for a Dutch person deriving from Jan Kees, a compound name made up of Jan and the common Dutch name Kees, short for Cornelius. Ultimately, however, there is not enough evidence to confirm any of these theories, and the origin of Yankee remains unknown.

The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fifth Edition copyright ©2022 by HarperCollins Publishers. All rights reserved.

Indo-European & Semitic Roots Appendices

    Thousands of entries in the dictionary include etymologies that trace their origins back to reconstructed proto-languages. You can obtain more information about these forms in our online appendices:

    Indo-European Roots

    Semitic Roots

    The Indo-European appendix covers nearly half of the Indo-European roots that have left their mark on English words. A more complete treatment of Indo-European roots and the English words derived from them is available in our Dictionary of Indo-European Roots.