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American Yankees Haven't Always Been Dandy

The world has called Americans "Yankees" at least since World War I, when the song "Over There" proclaimed that the Yanks are coming.

Northerners were Yankees during the U.S. Civil War in the 1860s. Actor James Cagney played a high-stepping Yankee Doodle Dandy in a 1942 musical about the life of singer-songwriter George M. Cohan.

And as every American knows, the New York Yankees are our richest and often most powerful baseball team - even though they were surprisingly absent from this year's championship playoffs.

But the term Yankee has been around longest as a sometimes-unflattering name for folks living in the New England states of the American Northeast.

Specifically, for Connecticut Yankees. In 1889, humorist Mark Twain published a novel called A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court. I'm a Yankee of Yankees - practical, yes, the leading character, Hank Morgan, described himself. And nearly barren of sentiment.

But these Yankees were shrewd and resourceful. Why, I could make anything a body wanted - anything in the world, Hank boasted.

And he just about had to. Except for two fertile river valleys, little Connecticut has generally poor soil and few natural resources. So Connecticut Yankees had to rely on their wits and inventiveness. The cotton gin, for instance, which spawned an entire clothmaking industry and spurred the trade in slaves to work southern cotton fields, was invented by Eli Whitney outside New Haven, Connecticut.

Connecticut entrepreneurs were shrewd bargainers - stingy with a dollar. Connecticut got its nickname, the Nutmeg State, from likely false tales of Connecticut peddlers selling phony wooden nutmegs instead of genuine aromatic seeds imported from the Spice Islands.

So being a resourceful but crafty Connecticut Yankee - or a talented but haughty New York Yankee baseball player - is sort of a compliment and an insult, wrapped into one.

Read more of Ted's personal reflections and stories from the road on his blog, Ted Landphair's America.