Yankee Doodle

‘Yankee Doodle’ is an interesting nursery rhyme from the 1700s. It’s concerned with the actions of “Yankee Doodle” and what he does with a feather.

Despite its interesting origins and strange language, ‘Yankee Doodle‘ is the state anthem of the American state of Connecticut. It dates back to before the American Revolution and the Seven Years’ War. It’s often sung patriotically with a tune that’s thought to be far older than the lyrics themselves. Furthermore, it, some scholars have suggested, may have started as another tune known as “All the way to Galway,” an Irish song.

The original song contained far more nonsense language than the contemporary version does. For example, the following lines:

Yanker, didel, doodle down, Diddle, dudel, lanther, Yanke viver, voover vown, Botermilk und tanther.

There are words in these lines, Dutch and English, in addition to simply nonsense words. There are some connections to historical moments, though. For example, the references to buttermilk and tanther, or a tenth of grain, relate to laborers in Holland.

Yankee doodle nursery rhyme


Summary

Yankee Doodle’ is a short poem that describes a man, someone called Yankee Doodle, and his actions.

The man rides into town on a horse and sports a feather in his hat. The nonsensical-seeming moment of this poem comes when the speaker says the man called his feather “macaroni.” The short lines of the piece, which can be explored in more detail below, are an interesting historical remnant suggestive of opinions about Americans and how men should act more generally.

Meaning

Yankee Doodle’ has origins that date back to the 1700s. But, when the version that’s commonly sung today was coined as an insult to the American colonists by the British. The word “doodle” was directed at the American fighters and meant country hick. Then, in the next lines, the speaker describes the American putting a feather in his hat and calling it “macaroni.”

This relates back to a tradition of dress for men during the period. Those who placed additional importance on their appearance, dandies, sometimes wore macaroni wigs. These were outrageous and over-the-top wigs that exceeded the contemporary idea of fashion. By using the word, the speaker is insulting the Americans again, suggesting that they’re preoccupied with appearances and don’t have the intelligence of their British counterparts.

Structure and Form

Yankee Doodle’ is a four-stanza song that follows a rhyme scheme of ABCB. The lines are all quite short, around six to seven syllables each. The words “pony” and “macaroni” are perfect rhymes. Inside the lines, “Yankee” and “pony” also rhyme.

Literary Devices

Despite its brevity, there are a few literary devices readers should be aware of within ‘Yankee Doodle.’ These include:

  • In medias res: a literary device that inserts the reader directly into the action. It means readers do not receive in detail to prepare them for a story. In this case, the reader is immediately introduced to Yankee Doodle.
  • Allusion: the poem is based around allusions to the British opinion of Americans during the 1700s and even the styles of the day.


Detailed Analysis

Lines 1-2

Yankee Doodle went to town,

A-riding on a pony;

In the first two lines of their nursery rhyme, the speaker addresses “Yankee Doodle.” This is a slang name given to Americans during the French and Indian War of 1754-1763. Someone who was a Yankee Doodle was uneducated and of lowly means. It was meant as an insult, but the Americans took it in stride, turning it into a patriotic song during the Revolutionary war.

Both of these lines are quite short, and once Yankee Doodle is defined, easy to understand. No one should have trouble reading these and enjoying the rhythm. The same can be said for the following two lines, at least in regard to the rhythm.

Lines 3-4

Stuck a feather in his hat

And called it macaroni.

In the third and fourth lines, the song gets a little more complicated. Here, the Yankee Doodle puts a feather in his hat and calls it “macaroni.” To our contemporary ears, this suggests that someone is calling a feather, or their hat, a type of pasta. But, it was, in reality, referring to an over-the-top hairstyle/wig that some men wore during the period. Those who did so were dandies, men who cared a great deal about their appearance. This was meant as another insult towards the Americans. So, not only are they poor and uneducated, but they’re also feminine in their overt concern about their looks.

FAQs

Why is Yankee Doodle offensive?

It was meant to be offensive when it was first sung during the 1750s. It insulted American men, calling them lowly, weak, and unmanly. But, the song has been reclaimed and is even serving as one state’s anthem.

Why did Yankee Doodle call it macaroni?

Yankee Doodle called it macaroni because he wanted to mimic the hairstyles of the period. But, because of his lowly means, he was only able to afford a feather rather than an entire wig.

What does the word Yankee mean?

It’s unclear exactly where the word “Yankee” came from. But, it’s generally considered to refer to someone who is American and blatantly so. Today, it’s used in a wide variety of circumstances.

What is a macaroni man?

A macaroni man is someone who spoke with an affected accent, dressed in a specific over-the-top way, and used large, outrageous hairpieces. They were known for spending a great deal of time on their appearance and how they’re perceived. The term was used insulting in this rhyme.

What does “Dandy” mean?

The word “dandy,” which is often included in versions of this tune, refers to a man who, like a macaroni man, spends a great deal of time on his appearance. This person cares about what they look like, something that, in the context of the song, makes them weak in comparison to those who don’t.


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About
Emma graduated from East Carolina University with a BA in English, minor in Creative Writing, BFA in Fine Art, and BA in Art Histories. Literature is one of her greatest passions which she pursues through analyzing poetry on Poem Analysis.
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