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Reference Question of the Week – 7/29/12

   August 4th, 2012

Once a librarian, always a librarian. So, my family came to visit, and it was fun to show my niece and nephews around Boston. However, just as we were finishing lunch outside Quincy Market, a man with a German accent walked up to my dad and I and asked:

German: You are Americans, yes?
Us: Yes.
German: Good, I was wondering, can you tell me, why are Americans called Yankees?
Us: Um...

I had no idea. It is one of those questions that feels like it should have an answer that everyone knows, but I couldn't remember ever hearing where this nickname came from - and on the spot, I couldn't even come up with anything that even sounded reasonable.

So we apologized for not being able to help him. He said it was no problem and merrily walked off - but I felt kind of bad, and of course was curious.

Since I was on vacation and not at the library, all I had was the internet - and of course my first stop was Wikipedia's article for Yankee. The Origins and history of the word section starts off with "The origin of the term is uncertain," and cites some pre-Revolution instances, as well as details Faulty theories. Ultimately though, it says that a Dutch origin is the most likely scenario.

The article also has a good Further Reading section, and there are other websites that cite similar origins.

When I got back to work the following week, I checked some of our word origin books, but none that were checked in included Yankee. So, my next stop was our Oxford English Dictionary.

Although the OED also indicated [Source unascertained], it dedicated almost a full two columns to the word. And what it did say about the etymology basically echoed what I'd already found:

OED Yankee

So, I'm sorry German tourist, but it looks like there actually isn't a good answer to your question (so, technically, my Dad and I saying we didn't know was the correct answer).

Regardless, I still felt like I should have given him a business card or something and told him I'd let him know after I I got back to work and looked it up. I guess librarians never go on vacation - just wider roving reference.

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6 Responses to “Reference Question of the Week – 7/29/12”

  1. J Says:

    I don’t think all American’s enjoy being called a Yank though. The term reminds people of a time in history when the nation was at war and we are reminded that sadly slavery was once an accepted practice in the Union. Foreigners use the term to describe any American but that ignores a big and painful part of our history as a nation. I wish the term would go away.

  2. J Says:

    I should have gone on bit. We are all American’s here in the US. Still referring to the Northerners as Yankees and Southerners as reb’s or the like doesn’t make make us all seem as one nation united.

  3. Brian Herzog Says:

    @J: thank makes sense, although it didn’t occur to me – I grew up in Ohio and now live in New England, so “yankee” is something I’ve always been (despite the fact that I was born in Texas). I’m sure there are plenty of nickname for other nationalities that an American might use that are just as inaccurate at a regional level. If nothing else, perhaps hearing a foreigner use “Yank” would be a good opportunity to explain those differences.

  4. Jessica Says:

    I love that idea of handing out a business card while off the desk. Even if they don’t call, it does promote the librarian in a 21st century image.

  5. Brian Herzog Says:

    @Jessica: but to be really 21st century, the business card of course has to have a QR code on it…

  6. Claritza Says:

    As I was exploring the depths of Old Cairo, an Egyptian woman made me smile by calling out “Aloha, Yankee Doodle!”