Tuesday, November 27, 2018


In the recent discussions in our little section of the blogosphere, driven largely by people we all know well, there has been interest in the word "Yankee." The quote from EB White ending with the idea that a Yankee is someone who has pie for breakfast includes the claim that New Englanders regard a "Yankee" as someone from Vermont.  Well of course EB White would say that.  He came from New York whose expatriates wen to Vermont and coastal Maine.  We in New Hampshire would never say such a thing, especially now as the once-proud Green Mountain State is bursting with damfool newyorkers. Not that we have much ground to complain anymore, being overrun with Massachusetts folk. (And even Massachusetts was a respectable place until about 100 years ago. Parts of it still are.)

But reflecting on the word and its usage as one remembers it is sometimes more useful than reading even very knowledgeable people.  I grew up in NH, and Yankee was more often an adjective than a noun.  Occasionally someone would referee to "an old Yankee," always meaning a rural or small-town person whose ancestors had come from nearby, and was likely taciturn/cheap/stubborn/worked with his hands.  But usually the word was a reference to those characteristics. Yankee thrift, yankee skepticism, etc. It came up when you had to do business with a marina or hotel owner, or local character out-of-town. That general store wasn't going to change its product line much.  It would still have those frightening hard-boiled eggs in a jar on the counter, and coffee that was like black ammonia after rendering down to goo all day.

I think we regarded it as core americanism, that even a lot of rural Southerners and westerners might approve of, except that the name would put them off. Hard-working, stingy, skeptical, hard to move.  We regarded ourselves as Yankees, but watered-down versions of the Ideal.


ruralcounsel said...

Vermont was a respectable place until the late 1960's.
Then we got the likes of Bernie The Brooklyn Blowhard.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

@ ruralcounsel. Given your handle and your Vermont residence, you are likely to feel at home here. Please stick around, even if I wander into some posts that don't interest you. You might hit the search bar for "Vermont" to see what I've written in the past.

Grim said...

The connotation is so different in the South, but I encounter your usage in books. I always think of the denizens of New Bedford in Moby Dick when trying to imagine the way the word sounds to Northerners.

But in the South, it is New York City that is quintessentially Yankee. It is especially Manhattan. The very place you’d dismiss is what we’d think of first. They were for us like Californians are to Texans today: brash, loud, moving in with greater wealth but from a place they’d run into the ground (as NYC was quite unpleasant in my youth), uninterested in learning lessons about that and overconfident that they should force you to ‘evolve’ and do it their way.

Even a Yankee in the sense you mean could see why we disliked the kind of person we meant. Or why Texans may not be enamored of California transplants just now.

Donna B. said...

Grim - Texans aren't all that fond of New York City either. We had fun explaining "get a rope" to my English brother-in-law recently. I think he enjoyed his first Thanksgiving.

RichardJohnson said...

But in the South, it is New York City that is quintessentially Yankee. It is especially Manhattan. The very place you’d dismiss is what we’d think of first.

I ran across this point of view when I first got to Texas. I read a letter to the editor of the Houston Chronicle that discussed "Yankees eating chopped liver." I said to myself: "WHAAT? Yankees eat baked beans, johnny cake, corn on the cob, and indian pudding. Jewish people eat chopped liver."

No, Texans aren't particularly fond of Californians moving to Texas who vote straight Democrat. A cousin of mine in LA- lived there all his life- is proof that not all Californian are "progressive Democrats."

For an entertaining description of "those characteristics. Yankee thrift, yankee skepticism, etc.", you can't beat Bert and I. Old hat to some of us, new to others.

Grim said...

Let me return the 'Bert and I' favor with Jerry Clower, telling a story he had from the late great Zell Miller.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

I've got the Bert and I vinyl records, handed down from my father. I don't know where they'll go next. I'm not sure any sons will care more than a little. The one outside Houston does have a phonograph, though. He's also got two jukeboxes in his house, if you know anyone in the area who repairs such things.

RichardJohnson said...

AVI, I updated Bert and I. My parents' Bert and I vinyl record is long gone. Circa 2000, I purchased cassette tapes of Bert and I. Some years after purchasing cassette tapes, I gave my brother Bert and I CDs.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

@ Richard, followup with Tim Sample, who inherited the Marshall Dodge mantle. https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCZzsAy8XkvTSiJh2_I4YsiQ

Texan99 said...

When I was a kid at Girl Scout camp, we took turns at meal duty, sometimes setting the table. (A dining hall, not tin plates by the campfire.) I'd always been taught that the fork goes on the left and the knife on the right nearest the plate, with the spoon next to it on the right. My camping companions either had been taught the same or were willing to go along. I never questioned this practice, any more than I questioned speaking English. One day one of my companions set the table a different way; I forget if it was entirely random or a different order. I was a little shocked, actually. There are different ways of doing this? I never dreamed. Another camper explained to me quietly that the odd camper was "from Louisiana." That seemed to make sense.

Mind you, this was not a high-toned camp. Sessions lasted only two weeks and were quite inexpensive, even for my family of very moderate income. Even so, there was a strong sense of social strata even among such youngsters, which bled over into regional assumptions: those people across the river are obviously barbarians.

My South Carolina cousins never shook the notion that my sisters and I lived on a Ponderosa-like cattle ranch in Texas, and that we were a little wild and woolly. They really were more like debutantes-in-training compared to us. My North Carolina cousins were a little closer to hillbillies and, I think, saw us as cosmopolitans or at least soft city (suburb) kids.

I didn't have any Yankee relatives. Yankee, by the way, means anyone above the Mason-Dixon line. It's the functional equivalent of "carpetbagger."

All this, and I grew up in Houston, one of the least place-conscious cities in the country. It grew so fast after the invention of air-conditioning and the rise of the oil boom that there was little cachet attached to being an old-time resident, even less than in other big Texas cities such as Dallas. With people flooding in from all over the county and even the world, we still found a way to assume that our sort of people were normal and everyone else was a bit odd. Naturally, we were correct about Yankees.