First of all, is a yank a jerk?

Well, in some parts of the world, certainly, people will tell you Yanks are jerks. Which is not necessarily fair, though I have to admit American tourists can often be quite grating, even if you are one (I tend to lean to my Canadian side when travelling – as though Canadians are never obnoxious, hah). But there’s Yank and there’s yank.

Both have the same sound, reminiscent of pulling on, say, a rope attached to something or someone – short, beginning with an accelerating impulse and then ending abruptly. Both have the same letters, with that final k like a wall with something being pulled away from it and that initial y like a wishbone that parties pull on – but the capital Y is perhaps more wishbone-like. Also more dowsing-rod-like.

But Yank is short for Yankee, which outside the US means “American” and in the US more often means “American from the northeastern states, or specifically from New England”. Its origins are not altogether certain, but most likely it comes from Dutch Janke “Johnny” or Jan Kees, a dialectal variation on Jan Kaas “John Cheese”, used as a derisive nickname (remember that there were many Dutch settlers in the northeastern US in the 17th century). The lower-case yank, on the other hand, seems to come originally from Scotland, where it means “a sudden sharp blow” (yerk is another word in the same vein); the “sudden pull” sense comes from the US, and the verb is formed from that noun.

So, in the American sense, yank is synonymous with “jerk”, but in the sense “American” it is not necessarily so. But it is good to have a word yank that is like jerk but different, since jerk has its own flavours – jerkin and jerky, certainly, but also jerk as in “annoying person” (as we have already implied) and jerk in some other, ruder uses. And given that yank is often used in conjunction with out, away, open, and, yes, off, that matters. It’s also good to be able to speak literally of “yanking someone around”, whereas “jerking someone around” has an overriding figurative sense. Yank also has a more completive feel: if we talk about “yanking someone or something”, that means pulling them or it from a program or lineup. “Jerking them” is not available for that kind of use.

And along with the imitative feel of it, it does get a little boost from echoes of yikes and all the ank rhymes (thank, spank, tank, and so on), and that [jæ] onset that could be positive but is always energetic emotionally. And, of course, the inevitably American flavour of it.

Thanks to Carolyn Bishop for suggesting yank – back in September 2008.

One response to “yank

  1. Funny that Yankee ultimately derives from what is essentially “John Cheese,” as had his father not changed the family name, that’s precisely what Python John Cleese’s name would have been.

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