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.
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.