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Yankee Doodle’s Macaroni: Spoiler Alert…It’s Not About Pasta

Ancient History | July 9, 2019

Cover of Yankee Doodle children's book, published by McLoughlin Bros., portrays the Uncle Sam character, New York, NY, 1880. Source: (Photo by Transcendental Graphics/Getty Images)

This Fourth of July holiday, you might be tempted to sing a litany of patriotic tunes to help you celebrate America’s Independence Day. You might enjoy “The Star-Spangled Banner”, “God Bless the USA”, or even “Yankee Doodle”. If you are like most of us, you have probably paused once or twice to wonder, why does Yankee Doodle stick a feather in his hat and then refer to it a macaroni? What does that little, elbow-shaped noodle, best friend of cheese, have to do with feathers and the American Revolutionary War? Let’s find out. 

The tune for "Yankee Doodle" may have been used as a Hessian drinking song. Remember the Hessians? They were the drunken German troops at the battle of Trenton. Source: (newegg.com)

An Old Tune

The music to which “Yankee Doodle” is set seems to go back much older than Revolutionary War times. Some historians place it around the 1500s in Holland. The lyrics to this original version talked about mundane stuff, like farming and selling milk. The tune, however, was quite catchy and it was easy to substitute other words in to fit one’s own needs. It was used as the framework for children’s ditties and nursery rhymes, Hessian drinking songs, and also used for political and social satirical songs. 

The Brits mocked the Americans for being unsophisticated and poorly dressed. Source: (yankeedoodlespies.blogspot.com)

A Revolutionary War Diss Song

Leading up to and during the Revolutionary War, the Brits loved to poke fun at the Americans for being less sophisticated, less cultured, and less intelligent than the English. The British laughed at the American soldiers for being untrained, inept, and bumbling, which of course, was not an accurate description. Dr. Richard Shuckburg, a British army surgeon, is to blame for the depiction of American soldiers as dim-witted, back-woods hicks. He once witnessed the British troops assembling into tidy, uniform ranks and then saw the American troops, in out-of-date clothing, running around in a chaotic manner. He coined the phrase “Yankee Doodle” to mock the Americans. 

"Yankee" was an insult. Source: (vox.com)

What’s a Yankee? What’s a Doodle?

On their own, both “Yankee” and “doodle” were derogatory terms but used together, and they packed a punch. “Yankee” was an anglicized version of the Dutch “Janke”, meaning “Little John.” The Brits used it as an insult in the same way that we would say “dumb hick” or “redneck” today. A “doodle” was also British slang for a stupid person, often used to describe someone who was mentally challenged. The English showed their contempt for the Americans by hurling the double insult, “Yankee Doodle”, at them.

American soldiers lacked the fancy military uniforms, but they could still fight. Source: (history.com)

Embracing Their Hick-ness

The Americans decided to flip the script on the Brits and they began to embrace their “Yankee Doodle” persona and use it to their advantage. The Americans were smarter and better equipped than they let on, and they hid their brains and brawn behind their “Yankee Doodle” image. In fact, they even played it up to an extent, just to lull the Brits into a false sense of security. 

The Americans mocked the fashion-conscious Brits. Source: (atlasobscura.com)

The American’s Own Diss Song

Since the Brits were found of roasting the Americans with their diss song about Yankee Doodle, the Americans responded with their own version of the ditty. In this version, from the 1750s, the word “dandy” was added after “Yankee Doodle”. A “dandy” is a man who is self-absorbed and obsessed with his own outward appearance and sense of refinement. If the Brits wanted to make fun of the Americans for being rednecks, then the Americas would make fun to the Brits for being pompous pretty boys. 

Macaronis were the fashion-forward youth culture of 1700s England. Source: (lifetakeslemons.wordpress.com)

So where Does the Macaroni Come In?

The wealthy, young men of 1760s and 1770s England were noted for their over-the-top fashion choices. They wore enormous powdered wigs intricate updos that defied gravity. They loved extremely tight, tailored jackets. They also wore a strange narrow, pointed shoe called a winklepicker shoe. These young men were the fashion influencers of their day and they established an enviable lifestyle of leisure and culture. They fancied all things Continental and dined on Italian cuisine. Because of this, the youth culture became known as the “macaronis”. So when Yankee Doodle stuck a feather in his cap and declared himself to be a “macaroni”, he was mocking the dandified youth of England in much the same way at the Brit poked fun at the bumbling Americans. Touche. 

British General Cornwallis surrenders with "Yankee Doodle" playing in the background. Source: (pinterest.com)

The Ultimate Diss

Remember how we said that the American troops kept their skills on the down-low? This approach worked. The Americans defeated the British in the Revolutionary War. When the British commander, General Cornwallis, formally surrendered to the American at Yorktown on October 19, 1781, the Americans knew just how they wanted to celebrate their victory. They ordered the band to play “Yankee Doodle” while the American troops all sang along as if to say to the Brits, “How do you like me now?” 

Tags: yankee doodle song

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Karen Harris

Writer

Karen left the world of academic, quitting her job as a college professor to write full-time. She spends her days with her firefighter husband and four daughters on a hobby farm with an assortment of animals, including a goat named Atticus, a turkey named Gravy, and a chicken named Chickaletta.