Peter Francis May


I’m a Yankee Doodle Dandy!

Here are the 15th Century Dutch lyrics to a popular medieval tune. “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. And that’s the tune.

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 Kees” or “Jan Kaas”, 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.
Portuguese 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 to mean “in good health.” Like, “I’m kedge, and you?” Chuffy. That meant 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 jaws of the over-served. Fishy was one of the 200 terms in the Drinker’s Dictionary Benjamin Franklin published on tis day 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 the kind of Yankee Doodle Dandy George M Cohen wrote about and Jimmy Cagney belted out proudly!

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 circumbendibus dilly dally before I leave the subject 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 shapes of macaroni. As a matter of fact, their outlandishly affected fashion was called macaroni.
Back to the song; 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. Makes more sense now, doesn’t it?