By Marty Russell
Got everything prepared for your big Fourth of July celebration? The hot dogs, the burgers, the beer, the grill, the fireworks – although, for some of us, firing up the grill is a pyrotechnics show all its own.
You’ve got everything set to celebrate our nation’s birthday. You do remember that that’s what the Fourth of July is all about, right? The whole Declaration of Independence thing (although that actually happened on July 2), the whole war with the British and Washington crossing the Delaware, Paul Revere running around screaming “the British are coming” because the fool didn’t have a Twitter account.
You probably think you know everything there is to know about the Fourth of July and its traditions. For instance, most of you know where American flags and fireworks come from. The majority come from China. But chances are at some point during your holiday celebration some band somewhere, or maybe your brother on the kazoo after too many beers, is going to strike up “Yankee Doodle Dandy.”
What exactly is a Yankee? And, more to the point, what the heck is a Yankee Doodle Dandy?
If you look up the word Yankee in most dictionaries the first thing they will tell is that the origin is unknown. But, and maybe Paula Deen can take heart, it is generally agreed that it started out as a derogatory term. Of course we here in the South have always thought of it as a derogatory term at least until the two World Wars when any soldier from the U.S. was referred to by our allies as a “Yank.”
One of my favorite people, the late, great newspaper editor and humorist H. L. Mencken, wrote a piece back in the 1930s describing at least 16 possible origins of the word Yankee. Mencken thought the most likely source was a German and Flemish derogatory term from the 1600s used to describe the Dutch, who just happened to be among the earliest settlers in what became New England here in the states.
The name Jan Kaas was ascribed by the Germans and Flemish to the Dutch and the name literally meant John Cheese (that’s Cheese, not Cleese the British comic who could never be a Yankee). Since the “J” is pronounced as a “Y” and “aa” more like “ee,” it came out in English as Yan Kees.
So what’s a Doodle Dandy? Well, the song originated with the British as a slap at their American opponents. A doodle, at the time, meant an idiot. So the British sang it as a slur as in, “look at those idiot cheese-head dandies.”
Americans took the song and made it their own, changing the lyrics and firing it right back at the British. In fact, the song has been rewritten so many times that there are an estimated 190 verses that can be documented, some of which can’t be printed here.
Enjoy your Fourth, all you Yankee Doodle Dandies.
MARTY RUSSELL writes a Wednesday column for the Daily Journal. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org