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Like most popular songs of the era, ”Yankee Doodle” may not have been an entirely original creation. Most music historians believe that Yankee Doodle’s lyricists simply borrowed the melody from a popular folk tune of the period. As proof, they cite another song from these same decades that shares the same melody, “Lucy Locket:”
“Lucy Locket lost her pocket,
Kitty Fisher found it;
Not a penny was there in it,
Only ribbon round it.”
The song was about two scandalous figures in 17th-century England. Lucy Locket was a character in John Gay’s 1728 play, The Beggars’ Opera. This fictional Lucy was a poor woman of questionable virtue, but some literary historians have argued that Lucy Locket was actually a proverbial figure that predated Gay’s play. Kitty Fisher was Catherine Marie Fischer, a beautiful common woman who climbed to the top of London society through a string of affairs with the rich and powerful.
It’s difficult to say which song was attached to the melody first, but it’s easy to imagine both songs circulating within British army camps during these years. “Yankee Doodle” mocked America’s ragtag militia; Lucy Locket celebrated two “loose” women. “Lucy Locket” even contained the same sort of humor that made “Yankee Doodle” popular. Locket was slang during those years for vagina, and prostitutes were known to keep their money in pockets, or small purses, tied to their legs with ribbons. Scandalous!
This sort of borrowing has always been common within folk music, but today it can be found in other genres as well. Classical composers often include certain melodies or passages in their works that are taken from pieces they admire. Popular jazz, pop, and rock musicians have been covering each other’s songs for decades, sometimes making only minor changes between renditions. Rappers and hip-hop artists are notorious for sampling beats, phrases, and sounds from other works and giving them new life in their songs. Singers, songwriters, and musicians have always walked a fine line between inspiration and plagiarism, even back in the 1700s.
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.