The Yanks are coming/The Yanks are coming/The drums rum-tumming everywhere — according to Over There, America’s favorite World War I song, penned by our very own Yankee Doodle Dandy, George M. Cohan.
Yankee derives from the Dutch Jan Kee, “Little John,” which the English used to signify “John Cheese,” a disparaging European nickname for the cheese-making, cheese-loving Hollanders. But by 1663, Dutch settlers in the New World had turned it around, using it as a derisive reference for their English counterparts.
And Yankee Doodle? During the French and Indian War, a British officer, Dr. Richard Schuckburg, inspired by the shabby state of the American recruits, wrote a set of satirical lyrics to the tune of an old martial air. During the Revolution, the British fife and drum corps played it regularly to further annoy the colonists.
After the battle of Lexington in 1775, a Harvard student and minuteman rewrote the lyrics, as we know them today, making it into a marching tune, the first number struck up by the American band at the surrender at Yorktown. The 18th century dandy was an affected and superficial person. Today, however, when things are fine and dandy, they are “excellent” or “first class,” as with George M. Cohan himself.