Yankee, term used by Americans generally in reference to a native of New England and by non-Americans, especially the British, in reference to an American of any section. The word is most likely from the Dutch and may have been derived from Janke, diminutive of Jan [John]; from Jan and Kees, diminutive of Cornelis [Cornelius]; or from Jankaas, a combination of Jan and kaas [cheese], thus signifying John Cheese. Another hypothesized derivation is a Native American mispronunciation of English.
As early as 1683, Yankey was a common nickname among the pirates of the Spanish Main; always, however, it was borne by Dutch sailors. There is no satisfactory explanation of how it came to be applied to the English settlers of colonial America and particularly to New Englanders. By 1765 it was in use as a term of contempt or derision, but by the opening of the American Revolution, New Englanders were proud to be called Yankees. The popularity of the marching song Yankee Doodle probably had much to do with the term's subsequent wide usage.
In the Civil War the word was applied disparagingly by the Confederates to Union soldiers and Northerners generally, and with Southern hatred for the North rekindled by the Reconstruction period it survived long after the war was over. In World War I, the English began calling American soldiers, both Southerners and Northerners, Yankees. At that time too the shortened form Yank became popular in the United States, with George M. Cohan's war song "Over There" contributing largely to its increased usage. However, Yank, too, was known in the 18th cent., as early as 1778, and the Confederates also used that form in the Civil War. Yankee and Yank were again popular designations for the American soldier in World War II. In Latin America the term Yanqui is applied to U.S. citizens, often—especially after the Cuba revolution—with a note of hostility.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.