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Yankee Doodle went to town
If Mr. T. had been around in the 18th century, he would have pitied the doodle.
During the 18th century, the word “doodle” referred to a fool or simpleton. Linguists believe that it was derived from the German word dödel, which means fool, and entered English usage in the early 17th century. While we no longer call people doodles, the German word is still a part of the English language—to doodle is to scribble or draw mindlessly.
Now you know what a doodle is. If you don’t know who Mr. T. is, ask your parents.
Riding on a pony
To a person familiar with horses, a pony is a very specific type of animal.
Most commonly, ponies are distinguished from horses by their size. To qualify as a horse and ride the roller coaster, the animal must be at least 14.3 hands. A hand is an old unit of measurement applied to horses. Originally, it was literally a human hand. Today, however, the unit has been standardized to measure four inches. Thus a pony that is 14.1 hands stands 57 inches from the ground to the withers—the high point of the back between the shoulder blades.
Some horse experts prefer to define ponies by their build and conformation. For these folks, size is a secondary criterion. The primary characteristics of ponies are their stockier legs, wider chests, and denser bones.
Stuck a feather in his hat
And called it macaroni
Back in the late 1700s, when you called a man a “macaroni” you were not calling him a noodle, you were calling him a dandy.
In England, young men who adopted pretentious manners and dress were referred to as macaronis. Most likely the label was drawn from the fact that many of these men acquired their fancy tastes while touring the European continent. Sent abroad to complete their educations, they returned with a taste for foreign dress and exotic food—like macaroni (people in Britain at the time were not used to eating Italian pasta).
The label was applied mockingly. Young men labeled macaronis were considered affected dandies. Within the song, the reference carries a double insult. Not only is Yankee Doodle a macaroni, he believes that he has attained the height of fashion just by putting a feather in his cap.
British soldiers sang this song to make fun of American militiamen during the French and Indian War, but it would be the Americans who had the last laugh. American rebels during the Revolutionary War would often sing “Yankee Doodle” as an insult to the British after a victory. The song stung the pride of British soldiers for one very simple reason: if they just lost a battle to a bunch of macaronis, what did that say about them?
Brother Ephraim sold his Cow
And bought him a Commission
But when Ephraim he came home
He proved an arrant Coward
Contrary to popular belief, these lines do not refer to Ephraim Williams, Jr.
Many argue that these lines refer to Ephraim Williams, Jr., a soldier from Stockbridge, Massachusetts, famous as the benefactor of Williams College and namesake of Williamstown, MA. But Williams’ biography simply does not match the lyric.
For one thing, he came from a fairly prominent family, so he did not need to sell a cow to buy a commission. Nor was he a coward; he fought during King George’s War, and he died during the Battle of Lake George in September 1755 during the French and Indian War.
But as for that King Hancock,
And Adams, if they’re taken,
Their Heads for signs, up high we’ll hang,
Upon a hill call’d Bacon.
John Hancock and the Adams cousins, John and Sam, were leaders in Massachusetts’s patriot movement.
John Hancock and John and Sam Adams were leaders in Massachusetts’s patriot movement. Hancock, a Boston merchant, came to prominence during his battles with British customs officials, beginning in 1768. He would eventually serve as president of the Continental Congress and governor of Massachusetts. He also signed the Declaration of Independence with a famously large signature so that King George would not need to put on his spectacles in order to read his name.
Cousins John and Sam Adams both served in the Massachusetts legislature and Continental Congress. Sam was among the first to call for independence in response to British measures; John would go on to serve as Vice-President under George Washington and then the 2nd President of the United States.
There was Captain Washington
Upon a slapping stallion
You probably already know that George Washington had wooden teeth (that has nothing to do with this lyric). Did you also know that he was an excellent horseman?
Thomas Jefferson referred to George Washington as “the best horseman of his age and the most graceful figure that could be seen on horseback."
During the Revolutionary War, General Washington used several horses. Two mentioned in his correspondence were named Blueskin and Nelson. His favorite horse, however, was an Arabian named Magnolia. Despite his affection, however, he agreed to trade the horse in 1788 to Light Horse Harry Lee for 5,000 acres in the Kentucky territory.
And then we saw a swamping gun
Large as a log of maple
"Swamping” was early American slang for huge.
According to John Russell Bartlett’s’ Dictionary of Americanisms, “swamping” was a slang term used to describe something that was very large. It was used much like the words whopping or humongous.
Bartlett—not to be confused with John Bartlett, the editor of Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations—was a linguist and historian born in Rhode Island. His useful study of Americanisms was first published in 1848.
Uncle Sam came there to change
Don’t jump to any hasty conclusions; this is not the famous Uncle Sam, the symbol of the U.S. government.
While it might seem logical that within a patriotic song like “Yankee Doodle” this line would refer to the Uncle Sam, it does not. The paternal icon of the American government did not appear until decades later.
Historians agree that Uncle Sam first appeared during the War of 1812, but his exact origins are not certain. According to the most popular legend, Uncle Sam was Sam Wilson, a merchant whose shipments earmarked for the U.S. Army were stamped U.S. When the governor of New York visited Wilson’s warehouse and asked the significance of the initials, he was told that they stood for Uncle Sam Wilson. Soon, soldiers had turned the supplies sent by the faceless U.S. government into gifts from a generous relative, Uncle Sam.
So, who’s the Uncle Sam mentioned in the lines above? Honestly, we have no idea.