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shameless pleading

Swamp Yankee

Um, OK, I’ll take “frantic and shallow.”

Dear Word Detective: Can you tell me the origin and meaning of “swamp Yankee”? I have heard a few versions; the meaning is sometimes nice, sometimes not so nice. — Evelyn.

Every so often I wonder what Marcel Proust would have come up with had he been exposed to American popular culture. I suspect he would have read your question, dipped his Twinkie in his Yoo-Hoo, and been instantly reminded of the ditty that goes, “Oh be kind to your web-footed friends, for a duck may be somebody’s brother; be kind to the birds of the swamp, where the weather is cold and damp” (pronounced “dahmp,” of course). Or maybe that’s just me.

swampyank

Not our sort, dear.

Onward. I vaguely recall encountering “swamp Yankee” prior to receiving your question, but I can’t claim to have given the phrase much thought. That’s a bit odd, since “swamp Yankee” is usually used to mean a resident of Southeastern New England, particularly Rhode Island and Connecticut, and I grew up in Connecticut. I did know I was a Yankee, of course, and assumed I fell in the middle of the spectrum delineated by an aphorism usually attributed to E.B. White: “To foreigners, a Yankee is an American; To Americans, a Yankee is a Northerner; To Northerners, a Yankee is an Easterner; To Easterners, a Yankee is a New Englander; To New Englanders, a Yankee is a Vermonter, and in Vermont, a Yankee is somebody who eats pie for breakfast.” But nobody mentioned swamps.

Then again, growing up in the suburbs, I apparently didn’t fall into the demographic group usually considered “swamp Yankee.” The term seems to have first appeared in print in the 1930s, but is no doubt much older. A scholarly article on “swamp Yankee” by Ruth Schell published in American Speech (the journal of the American Dialect Society) in 1963 defines the term as meaning “a rural New England dweller who abides today as a steadfast rustic and who is of Yankee stock that has endured in the New England area since the colonial days.”

The significance of “swamp” in the phrase is a matter of dispute. Some say the first swamp Yankees were the less desirable immigrants from England in colonial days, relegated to the outskirts of civilization (“the swamps”) by the Puritans. Others interpret the “swamp” as simply referring to the rural, old fashioned way of life preferred by swamp Yankees, in contrast to the frantic and shallow life of the city-dweller.

Whether being a “swamp Yankee” is a good or bad thing depends, as usual, on where one stands. In her article Schell noted that people who might be considered “swamp Yankees” resented the term when applied to them by outsiders, but often used it among themselves. From the “swamp Yankee” point of view, they are preserving the true independent, self-sufficient spirit of New England. Today, to the extent that the term is still used, it seems to have become the New England equivalent of “redneck,” connoting rural living and a lack of sophistication to the broader society, but embraced as a badge of pride by those so labeled.

10 comments to Swamp Yankee

  • I grew up with my grandfather saying we were swamp yankees. I always thought it meant poor farmers. Or dirt farmers was another name.

  • Bill Adams

    I am the Swamp Yankee. I live on Cape Cod in the town of Barnstable in the village of West Barnstable,Ma.
    AKA swampmapleyankee. I can be reached at swampmapleyankee@yahoo.com
    Cheers

  • James

    The term Swamp Yankee dates to King Phillips War. During the war, there was a battle in the Great Swamp near South Kingtson 1675. The Narraganett Indians eventually were routed, killed and exiled. True Swamp Yankees are those whose ancestor fought in that battle.

  • Maggie

    Myself, and my family, are natives of western Massachusetts. I grew up hearing my mother use the term “swamp yankee,” usually in a slightly derogatory way. It was a term akin to “white trash,” but not as harsh– essentially it describes the rural, under-educated poor (which, at least in this part of the state, generally means poor whites). For example, we got a new washing machine, and the old one sat out in our driveway for a few days, waiting to be picked up by the people who were getting rid of it for us. My mother was quite distressed to have this in the yard, frequently remarking “We look like a bunch of swamp yankees, with that thing sitting out there!,” during that time. I don’t know where Ms. Schell got the idea it was limited to RI, CT, and southeastern MA. Although, I will admit that it was a term probably passed down to my mother from my grandmother (born in 1916), and our family in particular seems to use more old fashion expressions that most (something I found out in high school when I would use a familiar saying and find that no one else had ever heard it before…).

  • I am here to tell ya that I am a Swamp Yankee and dam proud of it. My gradfather was interviewed for both Yankee Magazine and the Providence Journal (RI) as to what a Swamp Yankee was since he was one. We hail from Foster, RI, a very rural area of NW RI and go back 8 generations. The definition of Swamp Yankee is a person dating backing many generations in the same area having much common sense with out formal education. I am so proud of my heritage I own a buisness called Swamp Yankee BBQ

  • Having lived until 12 in a town on Cape Cod with less than 1000 in 500 sq mi and with numerous DAR sorts I nevertheless never heard the term until many years later by folks with educational pretensions in Falmouth on Cape Cod.
    More importantly I have heard the term used for ostensible southerners who were considered counterfeit, but never understood if they were carpetbaggers or migrants before the civil war.

  • I grew up in southeastern Ct. and I remember my grand Mother Saying we were swamp Yankees. And since you don’t or didn’t know her, she was one not to be argued with

  • Rich

    Very educational. Until reading these comments I had no idea RI was actually big enough to have both urban and rural areas. ;)

  • Cate

    I grew up in Southeastern Connecticut and my father always identified as a swamp yankee and it was never a derogatory term nor did he or our family see it that way. Yankees are hearty stock, frugal and hard working, but never white trash or redneck as mentioned in previous posts. (he was a Professor) Most settlers and American Indians often started settlements near rivers which were abundant with fish, shellfish and rich, farming soil. Not to mention the draw of deer to the water which provided meat. This also plays into the “swamp” factor of the title.

  • Living in southeastern Mass., swamp Yankee was always used to describe a very frugal English decent person. Frugal to the point of being anal about it.

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