Janke Doodle Dandy

“The basketball court was full of Tyrones.”

“Look at the tight pants on Juanita.”

“All the milk Mustafa sells is past its expiration.”

“Can Shlomo fit any more kids in that minivans?!”

It’s an especially nasty kind of tribal slur some of us throw around, when we use a popular name, or a memorable and therefore a perceived common name, from another language, as placeholder for everybody in a community. I suppose it’s better than outright ethnic slurs, but it may cut deeper since it implies a familiarity: “I’ve got you people all sussed out.”

I was reading about U.S. colonial history (as one does on viral lockdown) when I came across this detail from the French and Indian War and the Revolution: British soldiers played “Yankee Doodle” as a taunt the colonials, and North Americans, once they put musket, fife, and drum together, played it back to them: “Who’s a yankee doodle dandy now, bitches?!”

It got me reading up on these odd words of a very catchy jingle:

‘…it began perhaps in the 1500’s, as part of a Dutch harvest song that began with words of no meaning: “Yanker dudel doodle down.” But a century later, English Cavaliers used the same tune to mock Oliver Cromwell, who ”stuck a feather in his cap/ And called it macaroni.” At the time, ”macaroni” was the term for young Englishmen who wore fashionable Italian clothes. Anyone who thought he could qualify as ”macaroni” because of a single feather had to be an unsophisticated nerd. By the 1750’s, Englishmen in America used the song to make similar fun of the disheveled, poorly trained Americans fighting in the French and Indian War. And it is said that in 1775, when British Col. Hugh Percy led a column of troops from Boston to Lexington and Concord, his men marched to the brisk cadence of ”Yankee Doodle.”’

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A feather in your hat doesn’t make you macaroni – THAT’S macaroni.

That’s a questionable use of the word “nerd,” but it was from 30 years ago, from a New Amsterdam Times – pardon me, New York Times article . See, the story of “Yankee” is closer to my point.

All around the Hudson valley, where I live, any time you see a stone farmhouse, there is a fair chance that the people who built it would not have spoken English. They spoke Dutch, which was common well into the early years of the U.S.A.  (Sojourner Truth, owned by Dutch-Americans, grew up speaking it; English was her second language.)

The leading theory about the origin of the word “Yankee” is that the second wave of Europeans – the English – had a derisive nickname for Dutch people based on their common first name Jan, pronounced “Yan,” with the diminutive -ke added. So “Janke” means “Johnny,” with all the hostile intentions of calling a Brooklyn Italian “Tony” before you know his name.

“The farmers in that valley are all jankes.” “Don’t buy a pony from that janke, he’ll rip you off.” “These jankes don’t even speak English.” “I have janke friends, but when a barn-raising is all jankes, I don’t know what they’re saying.” “My sister danced with a janke?!” Or, “A pregnant woman got on the subway and none of the jankes gave up their seats.”

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“Dutch, Quaker, Puritan, WHATEVER you are, Janke.”

Damn Yankees!

So when things got hot and the British started keeping troops here, they started calling all the colonials “Yankees” the way a modern American soldier might call a Turk or a Persian an “Arab” when they’re not actually Arabs: They’re all the same! And we North Americans became Y.W.A.

Add the ethnic origin of the word “Yankee” and the emasculating insult “doodle dandy,” implying, “You’re not a fop, you’re a fop wannabe!” The oldest song in our patriotic canon is … not nice, actually.

That was lost on me when I heard the song as a kid, of course. The tune is as fun to sing as it was when throwing turnips in the cart in the 1500s. And “stuck a feather in his hat and called it ‘macaroni'” was delightful nonsense. As usual with history, the closer you look, the weirder it gets.