The title of this old patriotic folk song provides an interesting example of the way language develops. Today the words “Yankee” and “doodle” both have precise meanings in the English language, but their roots are in other languages—German, and possibly Dutch or Algonquian.
The origins of the word “doodle” are relatively easy to uncover. In the song, Yankee Doodle is a simpleton, a fool who thinks he is a slick dresser just because he put a feather in his hat. “Doodle” entered the English language as a label for fools during the early 17th century. Most linguists believe that it was derived from the German word for fool, dödel.
The origins of the word “Yankee” are not so clear. Most language historians believe that it has roots in Dutch, but there are differing opinions as to the exact origin. Some argue that Dutch settlers in North America referred to their English neighbors as Janke, meaning “Little John.” Others suggest that the label Jan Kees, meaning “John Cheese,” was mockingly applied to the Dutch by their Flemish neighbors in Europe, and the insulting nickname crossed the Atlantic with early Dutch immigrants to New Amsterdam (New York). Over time, Jan Kees became a label for all European settlers in North America.
Another theory traces the word to Northeastern Native Americans who transformed “English” into Yengeese. Henry David Thoreau, the 18th century naturalist and writer, was among the first to advance this theory. He noted that the Native Americans of Massachusetts still referred to Americans as Yengeese.
Whatever its exact origins, by the middle of the 18th century, Yankee was a common—albeit negative—label applied to American colonists. It would not be embraced more positively until the American Revolution.