By Donnamarie Leemann – Head of Marketing at Adarve Translations
A few years ago a British prince who was serving in the Royal Navy caused a flap in the press when he referred to one of his comrades-in-arms as “our Paki.” I was surprised that people would take offense to an abbreviation of the name of the comrade’s country, Pakistan. After all, few people in the United Kingdom take offense to being called “Brits,” though as we shall see some do take offense.
There is seldom derogatory content in a mere abbreviation. Thinking back to my post World War II childhood in Southern California, where virtually every one was an immigrant, the child of an immigrant, or the grandchild of an immigrant, I can remember any number of derogatory terms: kraut, frog, spic or beaner, mick, pollack, the list goes on. It is true that to call a Japanese person a “Jap” was considered by the speaker to be an insult: the memory of Pearl Habor was still fresh in many people’s minds, it was the 9/11 of that generation. Given the history of British colonialism in the Indian sub-continent, and the Brit’s subsequent efforts to make amends, it seems to me that it is the Pakistanis who might employ derogatory terms about their former British oppressors, not the other way round.
To me, the larger question is: who takes offense at what appellation, and why?
I have no particular association with the word “Yankee.” I am familiar with the phrases “Damn Yankee” and “Yankee Go Home.” I know that they refer to Americans in general. As I personally have done nothing to be damned for nor have I taken part in or even condoned any kind of foreign adventures on the part of my homeland, I do not take such imprecations personally. I have no quarrel when “Yankee” is used to refer to Americans in general. I do, however, object to the term being applied specifically to me. I have Swiss nationality as well as American citizenship; I haven’t lived in my native land for three decades. This is not why I object to being called a “Yankee.”
Rather, I object to being called a Yankee because the term does not apply to me. Family legend has it that my mother’s family arrived at Newport, Virginia, some years after Captain Newport arrived there in 1610 and founded the town now known as Newport News. Exactly how long after Captain Newport arrived isn’t specified, but it was sometime before the middle of the 17th Century. They stayed put in Virginia. My mother was born in Norfolk. They were on the Confederate side and fought those damned Yankees in the War Between the States (the American Civil War.) To call anyone in the culture from which my mother came a “Yankee” was a provocative insult.
My father’s family emigrated from what was then the province of Bohemia in the Austro-Hungarian Empire (and is now part of the Czech Republic) around 1910. They settled in the Czech ghetto in Cleveland. They were derided as “Bohunks” by earlier arrivals. Czechs were rare in the California of my childhood. Had there been more of us, “Bohunk” would surely have joined the list of krauts, frogs, and other folk different from the taunters. It makes me wonder just what the ancestry of the people who hurled ethnic imprecations was. They certainly weren’t the progeny of the indigenous New World “Indians” who had lived in Southern California for millennia before the arrival of people from “The Old World.” I’m pretty sure it was the krauts calling the Irish “Micks” and the frogs calling the Germans “krauts” and the….well, I’m sure you get the picture.
So, Southerners who loathed Yankees on my maternal side, Eastern European immigrants who arrived in the early 20th Century and settled in the Mid-West on my paternal side. Nothing Yankee about any of those folks:
Yankee: noun, probably from German, Jan Kees (taken as plural); Jan or John, dialect form of kaas, cheese; originally (Jan Kaas) used as disparaging nickname for a Hollander, later for Dutch freebooter; applied by colonial Dutch in New York to English settlers in Connecticut; a native or inhabitant of New England.
(Webster’s Unabridged 20th Century Dictionary of the English Language)
Yankees are people who live in New England, in the eastern USA well north of the Mason-Dixon line that divides the North from the South. I have no problem with the term “Yankee” being used in an American cultural context, as in “Yankees are crazy when it comes to guns,” or “You Yanks did a good thing when you re-elected Obama.” These are the kinds of things you hear about Yanks when you have American citizenship and live in Europe.
I know I am fussy about things like this, but I am devoted to linguistic clarity and it riles me when terms are misused. But what actually constitutes misuse? My insight is that it is okay to refer to Americans collectively as “Yankees,” but that the term has no meaning when it is applied to me personally. This is because a personal application of the word implies a geographic location that has nothing whatever to do with me or my familial roots.
Last year, I dated a man who was introduced to me as being “A very nice Englishman gentleman.” And so he proved to be. One evening we attended an English-speaking social club event on a riverside terrace. I introduced my date to a friend as a “Brit.” He bristled at being called a Brit and informed my friend that he was an Englishman (even though he was in Switzerland grâce à his United Kingdom—or British—passport).
A few minutes later, he referred to me as “That Yank over there.” It was my turn to correct him. “I’m not a Yank,” I informed him and his interlocutor, “I’m a Gringo.” Gringo is a term used by “Latinos” from south of the American/Mexican border to refer to non-Hispanic people who live north of the border. Originally it only referred to people from border lands like California, Arizona, New Mexico and Texas. Now it refers to anyone who is non-Hispanic who hails from north of the border. I take no offense at all at being called a Gringo, it is a specific, descriptive term that carries no derogatory content. It can be used in a derogatory way but in and of itself it carries no negative import. Interestingly, it is impossible to pin down the derivation of this term. Some sources insist that it derives from Northern soldiers who sang “Green Grow the Lilacs” as they ravaged lands south of the border during the Mexican/American War. Other sources dismiss this idea out of hand. Whatever the derivation, the appellation does not bother me in the least. I am, after all, a non-Hispanic who comes from north of the border.
So I’m cool with Gringo, and am not cool with Yankee.
After my date objected to being called a Brit I never again used the term, I called him an Englishman. But he continued to refer to me as a “Yank.” When I objected, he replied that “Everyone calls Americans ‘Yanks.’” That is true enough, and I don’t mind being called a Yank when people speak of Americans in general. I do object when people refer to me, specifically and in my own person, as being a Yank.
Names, nicknames and cultural appellations are not just stand-alone words. They often carry a heavy load of linguistic and cultural baggage. That baggage can be intricately and confusingly packed.
Why was there a flap when the British prince referred to a comrade of whom he was obviously fond as a “Paki”? Why did the Englishman resent being called a “Brit”? Why do I object to being pegged as a “Yankee”?
I think that the problem must have to do with one’s own personal identification. We can tolerate being lumped together as bohunks, krauts, frogs, spics, micks, kikes or whatever. But deep down we all know that we are not merely the sum of someone else’s subjective prejudice. When we are referred to as a group in disparaging terms we know that the person or group putting us down is employing stereotypes do not obtain in the real world. But when we ourselves are attacked, personally, we fight back on an entirely different level.
I am a Gringo. I am not a Yank. I will not allow myself to be manipulated by ill-meaning people who attempt to use ethnic and cultural slurs to bait their victims into committing retaliatory acts, who seek revenge, who are looking for payback.
This is an extremely childish quote, but it pretty much covers what I am trying to say:
“Sticks and stones will break my bones
But words can never hurt me.”
Call me whatever you please. I don’t like being called a Yankee because the term does not apply to me. I won’t get fussed if you repeatedly call me by word that doesn’t apply to me—but I also won’t date you again.
Slurs and imprecations can only hurt your if you let them. Reacting negatively to such slurs and imprecations can only lessen your own standing.
And, of course, there are factual matters. The term “Yankee” does not in fact refer to me. My English friend didn’t care about the facts, he was content to parrot a very old stereotype when speaking of me. I don’t know why Pakistanis might take offence to one of their countrymen being referred to by the British Prince as a “Paki.”
In the long term, taking offense at terminology that is not intended to give offense is counter-productive. I don’t like being called a Yankee but so what? Now that you know that my family comes from Bohemia in what was once the Austro-Hungarian Empire you could try to insult me by calling me a Bohunk.
But I wouldn’t take offense.
Don’t you remember how it was when you were a kid? How incredibly mean other kids could be, especially to any other kid who was different to them? Now that we live in a globalized, lawyered-up world, we get our knickers in a twist when anyone, anywhere, goes off page, like the British prince who mentioned his Paki Pakistani friend.
It’s time we stop acting like children. I don’t like being called a “Yank” because the term misses its mark when it comes to me. But I am not going to cause an international flap if someone who does not understand calls me a Yankee.
It’s time we stop taking offense at the slightest ethnic and national slights. Just because we can object doesn’t mean that we should object. Anger, payback and revenge don’t cut it in a globalized world. Understanding and reconciliation are what will move us all forward towards a greater future.
I ain’t a damn Yankee, but you can call me a hopeful Gringo.
Donnamarie Leemann – La Chaux-de-Fonds, Switzerland
About the Author: Donnamarie Leemann is an artist and writer who has for many years contributed to the BBC and to many other public forums, and who collaborates at present with Adarve Translations as Head of Marketing.