Is “Yank” or “Yankee” a slur?

There’s been an interesting but fairly off-topic discussion going on on the previous JWN Comments board. Here’s the gist of it so we can continue this discussion over here:
At 11:40, Inkan wrote:
Dominic sounds strange when he brands the comments as “beyond the tolerable limit of racism” and then goes on to use “yank” as a slur.
At 12:05, Dominic wrote:
Is “yank” a slur? I refuse to write “American” to mean US people. I consider the implied claim that the US is bigger than two continents to be arrogant and insulting. If you have an alternative noun, I’m interested.
At 12:43, Inkan wrote:
I get a dehumanizing tone from the way “yank” is used in “Yankee go home” type rhetoric. ( It’s peculiar to use yank in that context. US southern right-wingers use “yankee” as a pejorative against Northerners and liberals. So “yankee go home” protesters are ironically using the same language that people in the US who have rightwing or even racist leans use. )
Well, I’ve been using “US” as an adjective in place of American, and I guess “US people” or “US residents” works as best as anything. All countries from Angola, Zambia, Malawi and Mozambique on south compose the region of south Africa. So I guess then you never call yourself “South African” in reference to just the Republic of South Africa?
At 13:32, Dominic wrote:
South Africa is the country. The term used for the region is “Southern Africa”.
A noun is what I’m after. US is fine as an adjective but “US people” is clumsy. I’ve tried using it. I go back to “yank” or “Yank” with a capital Y if I’m feeling polite.
“Yankee, Go Home!” is a venerable and well-loved slogan. In itself it is a plain request for US troops to go home from the 138 countries where they now sit. That’s two out of every three countries, roughly. Perhaps you are a supporter of US bases in other countries, Inkan? In that case I have no sympathy for you.
“Yankee, Go Home!” is not the same as “Death to the Great Satan!” or anything of that kind. All the yankee has to do is go home. What’s wrong with that?
At “now”, Helena decided to put in her two-penn’orth:
I corroborate Inkan where he comments about the particular usage of “Yank/Yankee” inside the US… “Texans” go home would be more accurate in many ways but seems a little highly specific. As a collective noun for the general mass of US citizens I like “US citizenry”. But actually, what I think most people who hang out on JWN really want is for the US troops to get the heck home.
And that’s what we call for in our peace actions here inside the US: “Bring the troops HOME”, etc. Maybe keeping the focus on that is better than getting tied up with “Yankees”?
So the rest of you, feel free to join in…

25 thoughts on “Is “Yank” or “Yankee” a slur?

  1. Ed Forth

    From the underneath comment thread:
    Ed Forth:
    You’re willing to use a slur because a more proper term is “clumsy”?
    Also, you’re willing to draw a distinction between “Southern African” and “South African” but the use of “American” is offensive?
    If you prefer you’re welcome to refer to me as a “New Yorker” but I can’t think of a noun to describe the rest of my countryman off the top of my head.
    (Please don’t use “yank”, it’s not polite at all)
    Ed, I don’t admit that “yank” is a slur. See above. You may be shaken, but you are not slurred. You are simply addressed, and asked to go home. I repeat my question: What’s wrong with that?
    Your sense of politeness is your own, and an imperialist one. This is evident because you ignore the concrete situation: yankee troops in 138 countries, not to mention the yankee torture gulag.
    South Africa is a descriptive name. Our country is the one at the extreme South of Africa. There has been quite a lot of discussion about this name, but no need to go into it, because South Africans now agree. “Southern Africa” is more problematic. What binds this region into a concrete entity? African Unity as a whole is more viable and has a history as an anti-imperialist idea, especailly associated with the late Dr Kwame Nkrumah.

  2. Shirin

    While I can understand that the term yank may be offensive to some, and that people should find another term, I certainly do not limit my “here’s your hat, what’s your hurry, move fast so the door doesn’t slam you in the back on your way out” attitude to U.S. troops. I want the U.S. government out of Iraq 100% in all its manifestations. That includes troops, every single “embassy” (read political, economic, and military command and control center) official and employee, corporations, contractors, “advisors”, and of course the so-called “Iraqis” who rode in on the U.S. tanks – the Chalabis, the `Allawis and all the others who took foreign citizenship and sat out the hard times waiting for the U.S. to give them their big chance at glory and power.
    After they are all gone, and the smoke has cleared, let the Iraqis decide whether they want to have diplomatic relations with the U.S., and if so what form those should take. Let them decide who they want to award reconstruction contracts to, and make sure those companies are required to hire Iraqis instead of bringing in foreign workers. And let the Iraqis decide whether they want to even allow the likes of Chalabi, `Allawi et al. to set foot on Iraqi soil.

  3. Ed Forth

    If you aren’t willing to admit that “yank” is a slur, then I think you should define what a slur is.
    I’m defining it as a slur due to my belief that it would be offensive to the majority of people it’s addressed to. (I can confirm that my own limited sphere of acquaintances and friends that is so), and that it’s targeted at an ethnic/national group.
    There is nothing wrong with addressing US citizens and asking them to go home. What is wrong is using a slur to address them.
    As to my sense of politeness, I’m baffled that it is “imperialist” and somehow invalid due to US military presence abroad.
    If your nation had forces abroad, you could not be slurred? That’s absurd (apologies for the rhyme)
    To the matter of names. “The United States of America” is also a descriptive name, it’s the union of sovereign political boundaries occupying a common landmass. So I still fail to see how “American” is less proper than “South African”

  4. Dominic

    I agree that the main thing is for the US troops to go home without any delay, and take all their institutions with them (especailly prisons).
    For the record let us not forget that Dr Kwame Nkrumah was President of Ghana until he was couped by the CIA, a fate that has befallen many of our African political leaders and something that continues to happen right up to now in the world at large.
    In this respect too, we want the US to go home, and stop interfering in other peoples’ countries, whether with their troops or with their spies and their money.

  5. Eric

    I don’t know where the rest of you are from, but as an American, I’ve never considered “Yank” or “Yankee” to be slurs. You might have noticed we have a pretty successful baseball team by that name here.

  6. Dominic

    Ed, you must know that it takes two to make an offence, one to give and one to take.
    I’ve been hoping you would recognise the injury here, which is the occupation of Iraq and the presence of your forces in bases in 138 countries.
    Instead, you stand on your dignity. Well, I must say that the Internet is very instructive. It is providing strong evidence here that US citizens are at least indifferent, and often quite satisfied, with their country’s bullying presence around the world. In that case you must know that whether I express it or whether I withold my feelings, I am very, very angry indeed.

  7. Ed Forth

    I’m not trying to minimize your anger, but I don’t think that it justifies use of a slur.
    I think that your continued insistance that an offensive term isn’t in spite of complaints to you against its use and requests to end it’s use, is far more offensive than the original term.
    If I am standing on dignity, then you are standing on pride especially when you make the claim that the US populace’s general support or indifference to a policy you find offensive justifies the use of an ethnic slur against them

  8. Dutchmarbel

    Since the Dutch are in all likelyhood the first people for whom it was used as a slur I might add my two pennies 😉
    I think it depends on who uses the term and in what context it is used. In America, used by Americans, it is usually intended as a slur. Outside of the USA it is usually seen as a synoniem for Americans. So it *can* be used as a slur, but it can also be used as a very positive term, depending on the viewpoint of the speaker.
    I think you can compare it with the term ‘socialist’. In the US that is often used as an insult. For most other countries it is just a political stream, like democrat or green. So it can be used as in insult by a right wing person, but it is often used without any specific positive or negative value, just as a description.
    I also think that if someone expresses that he or she perceives it as a slur or an insult, you should not use it in a discussion. Apart from being impolite (and not courteous)it serves no purpose in a discussion if you try to convince others of your viewpoint. If someone calls me eurotrash I am not really likely to be empathatic to his or her viewpoints.

  9. Quentin

    The term Yankee strikes me as a bit quaint, old-fashioned and therefore slightly comical. I associate it especially with anti-U.S. demonstrations by South Americans (oops!, excuse me, there you have that designation again, American). So much has been said in the past about what to call U.S. persons and no new consensus has emerged to replace American: United Stateians could be my favorite proposal. The discussion seems a bit silly, though. Although all residents of North and South America can formally call themselves Americans too, they don’t. America happens to appear in the name of the two continents as well as in that of one country on one of the continents. As far as I can recall, the use of Yankee by people living outside the U.S. always has negative connotations. Yankee go home: get the U.S. troops out of Iraq and elsewhere.

  10. Christiane

    The word Yankee seems to have different uses, either positive or pejorative. Wikipedia has a good summary it seems. Here in Europe, the word was regularly used in connection with WWII and with the Liberation. It had no negative connotation at all.
    The word is even present in “Le Petit Robert” (The French equivalent of the Webster) which describes two uses for this word in French :
    1) One historical, refering to the Northern colonists of America (aka New Englanders).
    2) Another (nowadays infrequent) use of it, in order to differentiate the US people from the rest of the Americans.
    As a final remark, although the word isn’t particularly friendly, it isn’t a slur either. Just thinking to the way the actual leaders of the US and some of their media have been treating the anti-war countries and their citizens, I’m just not able to feel sorry for the use of that word.
    I’m with you Dominic : Yankees go home !

  11. WarrenW

    Within the US, the term “Yank” has different connotations in different parts of the country. In the northeast, it is not considered a slur to call an American (okay, a Usian) a “Yank”. But someone from the US state of Georgia might object.
    In the middle of the 20th century, the term “Yank” was often used by headline writers as a short way to say “American”. Australians still use the term “Yank”, often with affection, and Americans often find this amusing.
    Also within the US, the term “Yankees” was used by the losers of the US Civil War, the Confederacy or the South, to refer to the victors, the North. To this day, the term “Yankees”, when used by a southerner, is a slur, but not a terrible one. During the 1960’s, pro-segregation southerners referred to integrationists as “Yankees”, among other names.
    If Dominic and Shirin prefer the word “Yank”, they might be offending at most half the Americans, if that. If they want to be more offensive, the long form “Yankees” is understood to be negative and reminds people of the phrase “Yankee Imperialism” and the slogan “Yankee Go Home”.

    Within the US, the objection that others (especially in South America) have to the appropriation of the word “America” is mostly unknown. When discovered, it is not taken too seriously, except by US diplomats. In the US dialect of the English language, the terms America and Americans are very clear in meaning and do not refer to lands or people outside the US, although that might seem more logical. These words are sort of “Irregular nouns” in that their meaning is not inclusive in the logical or mathematical sense. That is, “America” is the name of a country, not a continent or a hemisphere, and the citizens of that country are “Americans”. On the rare occasions when someone (usually a visitor) objects to the usage, I have seen Americans respond to the objection as a simple mistake, rather than a critique.
    The term “the Americas” refers to North, Central and South America, combined. That is, the Western Hemisphere.

    On the other hand, when Americans hear that people from other countries object to the US name of its annual baseball championship as the “World Series”, they are more understanding and sympathetic. Americans agree the name of the championship is innaccurate but feel helpless to improve the situation.

  12. Dominic

    WarrenW, I appreciate your post! You are aware of ‘the objection that others (especially in South America) have to the appropriation of the word “America”‘! That is wonderful! And as you say, quite rare! Thank you!
    From an African point of view, it seems plain bad manners to speak of America while excluding Argentina, Cuba, and so many other countries.
    United States of America or USA is not so bad, because it is specific to one country. US is all right too, not to be confused with the United States of Mexico which would have to be “EU” in Spanish.
    Thank you for acknowledging the problem, WarrenW.

  13. JC

    Yank/American/USAen? Unfortunately my fellow whatevers, there are about 20 million Australian’s over here who aren’t going to stop using it. And I’m sure that goes the same for Britain and most of Europe. Can’t speak for Latin America though.
    Oh, and 95% of the time it is not intended as a slur. But if you would prefer to take it as such with your overly PC sensibilities, then well – tough.

  14. escott

    As a former Pennsylvania yankee now living in new dixie, ;-} this discussion seems a little strained. Interesting, yes. Yet so much of the “old” south, especially urban areas, is now dominated by transplated northerners… who are more likely to think of New England “yankee traders” as hating the (New York) “yankees” and loving the “red sox.” (speaking as a die-hard Phillies fan, I can relate and will always root for ANY team daring to resist the NY Borg….)
    Still on baseball imagery, think of the internal irony in the title of the classic C Wright Mills tome, “Yankee, go home.” As in, let’s “yank” the yankee imperialists from the global lineup.
    Ah, but what’s the new yankee/necon motto?:
    Democracy is inevitable. Resistance is futile. You too will be assimilated.
    Never mind…. :-}

  15. David

    I encounter this quandry all the time, as my work involves educating folks about US’er’s impact on the ecosystem and the impact of our economic systems on our neighbors. I’ve had enough experience in Central and South America to know that using “Americans” for US folks is offensive to many in those areas of America, so I generally use what I used above: “US’ers.” Given, most of my writing is in less formal settings–website, info pamphlets, etc., but it’s the best thing that I’ve been able to think of. For what it’s worth…
    Very open to other ideas.

  16. Warren

    Anybody who would consider themselves insulted by being called a Yank/Yankee is a little to hyper-sensitive for my tastes. A TRUE Yankee comes from the northeast, and they wear the title with pride. Of course during the civil war it was used descriptively for all ‘northeners’.
    But why would I be insulted by being called what I most assuredly am? Even if I am California born and bred. Yes, I am a ‘lily white’ Yankee. And I will do what I damn well please, when I please, and where I please.
    And if you want me to ‘go home’, you better be able to back up talk with fight (or at least a good hundred thousand person demonstration), because I won’t EVER ‘go home’ against my will unless you force me.
    And that’s the way we have ALWAYS been. We have only ‘gone home’ (without a fight) when WE have wanted to.

  17. Dominic

    The wheel of history turns faster at some times than at others. There are hundreds of millions of people still alive who have heard the French say “We have only ‘gone home’ (without a fight) when WE have wanted to.” and seen them leave, and the same with the Portuguese, and the British.
    What gives us confidence to know that you are going to be pulling back quite soon now is that you are conforming so closely to the late-imperial type.
    US imperialism is like a ripe boil that is about to burst. It is swollen up with virulent “do what I damned well please” arrogance and racism. Relying on that and little else, it is unstable. It is a disease in its last, galloping, stage.
    The Internet is very instructive. You can learn as much, or more, in dialogue with opponents as you can from friends. In ordinary life you might walk away form such encounters, but here the importunate imperialists force their views in front of you. Yet the effect is reassuring. The harder they come, the harder they will fall, for sure.

  18. sm

    Warren W’s discussion of context sensitivity amply demonstrates that no single usage of either Yankee or American will win out over all the others.
    Here in Canada we are sensitive to the use of the term “America” to mean the USA, but that usage is extremely common in the UK, in eastern Europe, and in Europe in general.
    If “Brits” (a slur) have been saying “America” for well over 2 centuries, it will take more than us bloggers or a war in Iraq to stop them.

  19. Susan - USA

    “And I will do what I damn well please, when I please, and where I please.” -Warren
    reminds me of the two-year-olds I work with….

  20. Susan - USA

    “And I will do what I damn well please, when I please, and where I please.” -Warren
    reminds me of the two-year-olds I work with….

  21. Peter Hofmann

    Try a google-search “yanks + 1917” and the answer is clear. Go to wikipedia and you don’t know who is insulted

  22. Craig McKie

    The problem of referring to citizens of the US is chronic one for Canadians since the term must inevitably be used in ordinary conversation. The most commonly used term is, predictably, ‘Americans’ even though it is generally understood to be an unjustified but characteristic appropriation of dual continental proportions. I have taken to using a made-up alternative ‘Merkans’ which is universally understood here and which mirrors the way many Canadians pronounce the word anyway. The term ‘Yanks’ is still in occasional use and reflects the British usage which was very common fifty plus years ago. Back in a still earlier era, an overtly disparaging use of ‘Yankees’ was common in remembrance of previous episodes of physical unpleasantries between Canada and the US in the early 1800s. You still hear it occasionally. The generic Merkan was stereotypically portrayed as “Sam Slick” in that era; you can imagine Sam’s character flaws without much difficulty. As Canada and the US proceed along rapidly diverging roads of social development, the sense of strangeness and foreignness Canadians feel when crossing the 49th parallel is increasing day by day. Thus the distinction is in line for rhetorical reinforcement. I suspect ‘Yankees’ may come back into vogue, at least until The Revolution is renewed way down south. Whatever you call yourself, please do not pretend to be Canadian when abroad anymore. It was always tasteless but it becoming dangerous to the peaceful people of North America, and it seldom works anyway. Merkans cannot pass the Timbit test: “What is a Timbit?”, when challenged. For shame.

  23. A swedish kind of death

    Is there not two questions interwoven here. First what words are there to denote a person from USA and second what secondary meanings will thess words carry.
    As shown upthread the secondary meanings vary between cultural contexts and above all, all denotations carry secondary meanings. From the examples of the word yank/yankee in the 20th century we can see that the secondary meanings are also closely related to the way different people see the role of US

  24. janinsanfran

    When I started my blog, I promised myself and any readers that I would not hijack “America” to refer to the United States and its residents, no matter how convoluted that made my writing. And so far I’ve done it, but the results are often awkward.
    Perhaps I should take up A swedish kind of death’s “Merkans,” derived I suppose from the accent of the current occupant of the White House.

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