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How the Yankees got their name

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How did a pejorative name for New Englanders become the name of a New York sports team?

The First Shots Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images

The first recorded use of the term “Yankee” came back in 1758, when British General James Wolfe, offering to send “two companies of Yankees...better for ranging and scouting than for work and vigilance” to reinforce another commander during the Seven Years’ War.1 This was certainly not, however, its first use—otherwise, the recipient of this message would not know that by “Yankees,” Wolfe referred to the New England colonists under his command. So where from where did the term originate?

Scholars are divided as to where the term first began. In 1789, a British officer claimed that it came from the Cherokee word eankke, which he translated as “coward;” this theory is certainly incorrect, as that word does not exist. Other theories of Native American origin were prominent during the 18th century, such as it coming from the Wyandot term for Englishmen or from a tribe called the Yankoos, who transferred their name (which means “invincible”) to the Massachusetts colonists who beat them in battle. All of these, however, have been debunked as early as 1909.

The general consensus among scholars today seems to be that the term has its origins in the Dutch name Janke, a diminutive of the Dutch form of “John,” a name that would be Anglicized as “Yanke” (the Dutch J is pronounced like an English Y); perhaps it may have been combined with the Dutch name Kees, which was common in the colonies. A few other facts reinforce a Dutch origin. For starters, the song “Yankee Doodle Dandy” has its roots in a Dutch tune. Perhaps more convincingly, a 17 century pirate, Jan Willems, plundered the Caribbean Sea and the coast of Latin America under the name “the Dutchy Yankey.”

In either case, although likely used originally to refer to Dutch-speaking colonials, the term “Yankee” began to be used for colonists from other backgrounds as well. It was not meant kindly. Following the Battles of Lexington and Concord, however, the Continental Army adopted both the pejorative name and “Yankee Doodle Dandy,” turning British anti-colonial biases into terms of endearment.

At this point, the history of “Yankee” splits. Outside the Revolutionary War, Yankee simply becomes a colloquial name for an American, sometimes used in a friendly sense, other times as a pejorative (the Finnish name for the United States, Jenkkilä, is derived from their term for Yankee). Within the United States, however, the term has always referred to somebody from the North, and typically referred to Puritan New England. During the Civil War, Yankee was more widely-used, becoming the Northern equivalent of “Dixie,” and the phrase “those damn Yankees,” which now takes on a different meaning in both baseball and musical theatre, found its first utterance as part of Confederate propaganda.

The next part of our story begins in 1903, when the Baltimore Orioles moved to New York and were renamed the Highlanders; historians seem to think that they received this name either from the fact that their field at Hilltop Park stood on one of the highest points on the island of Manhattan (i.e., the highlands), or because of team president Joseph Gordon’s Scotch-Irish background (the Gordon Highlanders were a famous Scottish military unit). The New York media, however, rejected this name, instead calling them the Americans or the Invaders. Ultimately, the New York Press coined them the Yankees because “Yanks” was easier to fit into the headline, and the name stuck.

In 1913, the Highlanders were officially re-christened the Yankees, and...well, you know the rest of the story.

  1. Mathews, Mitford M. A Dictionary of Americanisms on Historical Principles. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1951.