yankee in GDoS

I was reading the print version of Ernest (No. 4, I think, which I received a while ago as a gift for speaking at Brighton's Catalyst Club) and one of the short bits at the front was about a Yankee dodge. This was what British surgeon Robert Liston called the use of ether as an an(a)esthetic. Yankee because the method was developed in the US.

First use of ether in dental surgery,
from the Wellcome Collection
Within the US, yankee can mean more specifically "New Englander" or at least "northerner". Was this a yankee dodge in both the regional and national senses of the word? The first published-about use of inhaled-ether-as-an(a)esthetic was in Boston, Massachusetts in 1846 by William T. G. Morton (pictured right), and that's what got the attention of Liston. Morton was a Yankee for sure, in all senses of the word. But he spent the rest of his life defending his reputation as the "inventor" of an(a)esthesia because Crawford Long, a surgeon from Madison County, Georgia, had been using ether for some time. He just hadn't published about it. Long is less yankee than Morton from an American perspective, but from a British perspective, it's all yankee enough.

Anyhow...this got me thinking about the email in my inbox announcing the online publication of Green's Dictionary of Slang, which includes all the material from Jonathan Green's 2010 book of the same title plus further additions. Green also does fantastic slang timelines, which show the richness of the slang for topics like sex, drunkenness, and death over the ages. Green's work is especially thorough on underworld slangs, and while he's based in London, his attention does envelop other countries as well. So, I wondered: what comes up for yankee there?

This is just the (first) noun entry for yankee. The sub-entries vary in place of origin: (unmarked) British, US, and Australian. There may be some British association of yankee with cheating or taking a shortcut (cf. Yankee dodge), but in Australia, the stereotype used is miserliness, which in the US is more specifically a stereotype of New Englanders (found later Green's verb entry for to yankee 'to cheat'. 

SE here means 'standard English'. So, the first compound uses a slang sense to make a slang compound, and the later ones use the standard-English meaning of yankee 'American' to make further slang compounds.

Above is what you can see if you don't subscribe. If you subscribe (or better yet, get your library to subscribe), you get timelines and quotations as well that make the whole experience a lot richer.

Pretty! Not to mention: Informative!

I won't reproduce all the Yankee/yank entries here, but there are more for the exploring at the site.

In the interest of balance (and entertainment), here is some of the adjective entry for English. (A nickname like Brit would have been more balanced with yankee, but there were no particularly US senses there. Actually, limey would have been a good one to look at, but a reputation for vitamin-C deficiency isn't as amusing as a reputation for spanking).

This all might seem like a paid-for ad(vert) for Green's dictionary. It's not. It's a sincere appreciation of a thing of beauty and a celebration that modern technology makes such things more available and adaptable. It's also a little reminder that this kind of work deserves support. Labo(u)rs of lexicographical love shouldn't be taken for granted.


  1. Interestingly, it doesn't include the sense of a combination bet on four races. That may be a digression from the subject in hand but I think that 'yankee' may these days be confined to that meaning in BrEng. I suspect that "yank" is the more usual way of referring to a generic American.

    1. I agree, and would also note that Yank may have something of a perjorative tinge, often appearing in plural with the definite article in the way noted in the comments to the Lewd thread: "The bloody Yanks: over-paid, over-sexed and over here" (a facetious saying about US troops stationed in the UK during and after WWII). Still here, btw, keeping us safe(?) more than 70 years later.

      I believe los Yanquis has also been a standard perjorative term amongst Cubans since at least 1959.

  2. Let us also praise David Kendal, who made Green's Dictionary available on line when no one else would touch it (OUP had contracted to do it, but simply reneged), and volunteered his services because "it needs to be done".

  3. Christopher Fairs20 October, 2016 15:04

    We don't often hear the word 'anyhow'(1st word in 3rd paragraph of this article) in the UK, particularly at the beginning of a sentence, when 'anyway'would be more usual in this context.

    1. More usual, yes. But that doesn't mean it's 'the British' way to say it. In both American and British 'anyway' outnumbers 'anyhow' by about 11 to 1. The Corpus of Global Web-Based English has exactly the same number of American and British examples of sentence-initial 'Anyhow,'. (Plenty of examples in British National Corpus from about 20 years ago to indicate this isn't a new thing in BrE.) First example in OED (1901) is Canadian, but there are UK examples there too, so it's not marked as North American.

    2. I used to hear "anyhow" a lot when I was growing up. I thought it had just died out in the UU - not that it was american.

      Another word for American is septic/seppo From septic tank.

  4. Maybe I'm uniquely stupid, but in case anybody else made my mistake ....

    When you reach the Geen's Dictionary homepage,

    don't be put off by the boxes concerned with subscriptions

    (unless, of course, you have one or your library does). Non-subscribers can just type into the big box.

    It doesn't have mamlish, but I can't say I'm surprised. Nobody really knows what it means/meant.

  5. I would disagree that the American sense of 'Yankee' has disappeared. Admittedly, I'm from New England, so I'm probably more sensitive to it. The word itself feels a bit old-fashioned, but the sense of pride and identity is there for me. For example, we are known for our *thriftiness* (please, not miserliness) and our "Yankee ingenuity," not to mention the bygone Yankee clippers.

    Then, of course, is the Civil War, where the Yankees (this time in the more general 'Northerner' sense) beat the Rebels. I also remember about 20 years ago, an acquaintance told me she visited the family of someone she knew down South, and when she rang the doorbell, it played Dixie. The woman who opened the door looked real hard at her and commented that she was the first Yankee she'd ever allowed inside.


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AmE = American English
BrE = British English
OED = Oxford English Dictionary (online)