Reason Behind the Rhyme: 'Yankee Doodle'

Most of us can sing the dance tune "Yankee Doodle" without too much trouble. But why is a feather called "macaroni"? Chris Roberts, author of Heavy Words Lightly Thrown: The Reason Behind the Rhyme, returns to explain.

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DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Debbie Elliott.

Joining us now from our London bureau with another reason behind the rhyme is librarian Chris Roberts. He's the author of "Heavy Words Lightly Thrown." It's a collection of nursery rhyme history, something he started collecting while giving walking tours of London.

Chris, today you have come prepared I understand to talk about a touchy subject for a Brit and an American, "Yankee Doodle."

Mr. CHRIS ROBERTS (Author, "Heavy Words Lightly Thrown"): Well, we needn't all out about it. The line--there are many, many versions of "Yankee Doodle." It's a very interesting early example of Britain and America singing the same tune, not necessarily with the same words. It was getting remixed back and forth between the different countries and a bit like dance music is today. I mean, it's a very, very good analogy in many ways. And "Yankee Doodle" was actually a dance tune popular with reels and jigs and various maneuvers.

One of the many versions ran like this. It goes: "Yankee Doodle, keep it up. Yankee Doodle, dandy. Mind the music and the step and with the girls be handy." And this particular version was sung by predominantly the British as a reminder to our American friends that dance steps in Europe and in America, the colonies as it was, were different. And it's a reminder to check you doing the steps right and that you're holding the girl in the correct way, which is--so that's one variation of--apparently, there are hundreds and the book could have been devoted entirely to that.

But the other better known version which was used--the British used to sing it during the War of Independence. And rather nicely at Bunker Hill, I believe, where the British surrendered--the Americans started singing it, ironically, which I think's rather nice, because I think people in Britain don't appreciate that Americans have a very fine, ironic sense of humor, a very finely tuned sense of humor, and this is a very early example of that. But anyway, this version goes: "Yankee Doodle, came to town riding on a pony. He stuck a feather in his cap and called it macaroni." Now the British were essentially using this to taunt the Americans for not being very wealthy, not being very well dressed and, generally, criticizing their deportment. The key...

ELLIOTT: Besides not knowing how to dance properly.

Mr. ROBERTS: ...besides, yes. Just another thing. The key to this is the last word, `macaroni.' Now we all know macaroni as an Italian dish, as a very tasty Italian dish, in fact. But in this rhyme what the macaroni is referring to is an English youth cult from the 1760s and '70s. For those of you old enough to remember The Romantics of the 1980s, that's probably the closest analogy you'll get to the macaroni's incredibly dandified youth--huge wigs, tight jackets, winklepicker shoes. They stopped the streets of London when they were walking around and they had a very strong influence on fashion, much beyond their original numbers. And their favorite food was macaroni which came to be the name for the movement. So what this most popular version of "Yankee Doodle" is, in fact, doing--it is saying that you can't just stick a feather in your hat and pass yourself off as a macaroni. It takes much more effort than that. It's a put-down, if you like, of what they would see as hayseed colonials trying to emulate the dandified youth of London town. And that's essentially the base of the most famous version of the rhyme.

ELLIOTT: Explain to me those shoes...

Mr. ROBERTS: I hope I didn't cause any offense.

ELLIOTT: No.

Mr. ROBERTS: Winklepicker shoes. Oh, I don't know what the American version would be. Very pointed shoes. Very--quite hard to walk in. A bit like--you see people going to swimming pools or beaches sometimes wearing stilettos and it's completely ill-advised. These people would walk aro--I saw it the other day at Bricks & Lito(ph). It's--it would--ill-advised shoes that would cramp your walking style but would nevertheless cause people to stare. Stylish beyond the point of use.

ELLIOTT: Chris Roberts, a librarian at Lambeth College in south London, and the author of "Heavy Words Lightly Thrown." I'm holding my breath for our next reason behind the rhyme, "Rub-a-dub-dub." Thanks, Chris.

Mr. ROBERTS: Thank you.

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