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How the song Yankee Doodle was about obnoxious 18th-century hipsters

Phil Edwards is a senior producer for the Vox video team.

Most of us sing "Yankee Doodle" with a focus on the tune rather than the apparently gibberish words:

Yankee Doodle went to town

A-riding on a pony,

Stuck a feather in his cap

And called it macaroni.

To a kid, the macaroni at the end makes it sound like Yankee Doodle was an ignoramus who didn't know what mac and cheese was. But a kid doesn't know a couple of key things about the song, including that:

  1. The whole thing was written to insult Americans
  2. The real meaning of macaroni is a multilayered insult for the ages

Macaronis were the foppish avant-garde

A typical macaroni, as seen in caricature

A typical macaroni, as seen in caricature.

Heritage Images/Getty Images

"Yankee Doodle" had many different versions, but we know it was sung by British officers before and during the Revolutionary War. And a macaroni was actually a specific type of person — the type of person to be mocked.

"Macaroni referred both to particular short-lived fashion for men in the early 1700s and to a certain kind of man," professor Kate Haulman writes in The Politics of Fashion in Eighteenth-Century America. "Often derisive, the term applied to elaborately powdered, ruffled, and corseted men of fashion, successors to the Restoration era fops and predecessors to the nineteenth century dandy."

The unique name does have a connection to actual macaroni — it comes from the fact that these English "men of fashion" often picked up their style from tours around continental Europe. While there, they annoyingly picked up the habit of bragging about everything they'd seen, including an exotic Italian food called macaroni.

Imagine a wigged-out, Saturday Night Live version of the 18th century, and you probably understand macaronis. They wore extremely high powdered wigs, elaborate dress, and unusual (occasionally pointed) shoes. Though reports of their behavior varies — some note extreme effeminacy, while others focus on pretension — they were definitely over the top.

American John Trumbull's early 1770s satiric poetry book Progress of Dulness skewered a fop who went to college and got big hair and a cool new hat. Other macaroni references are even more direct: In the 1770s, diarists complained about macaronis who took long shopping trips, and magazines mocked "that soft-faced, soft-hearted thing with a great head and nothing in it, thy well-beloved macaroni." Though macaronis were often slurred for femininity, they were also frequently stereotyped as ladies' men, who used their sensitivity to court women constantly.

But some Colonials thought macaronis were completely hip

A macaroni caricature from 1774

A macaroni caricature from 1774.

Yale University Library

When pre-Revolutionary Americans, caricatured as backwater hayseeds, wanted to copy the macaronis of Europe, they set themselves up to be mocked, as they were in "Yankee Doodle." The simplest explanation of the "macaroni" falls short of how desperately Americans wanted to ape even the most embarrassing aspects of British society. The song's use of "macaroni" combined hick-shaming with hipster-shaming.

Macaronis weren't cool, vaguely urbane fashionistas like you'd see on the Sartorialist today. They were better suited to being pilloried on Portlandia. Despite that, there's evidence that some early Americans really did adopt macaroni style. Haulman's book points out that much of early American fashion copied European trends. America's urban elites desperately sought to be respected abroad, and they were willing to use the most absurd macaroni fashions to do it.

All these macaroni insults probably lead to one of two conclusions. You could analyze the social restrictions at play and think of the macaroni as an early expression against emerging heteronormative culture, as academics like historian Peter McNeil do in papers such as 1999's "That Doubtful Gender": Macaroni Dress and Male Sexualities. And that's a valid conclusion — sexual mores were developing, and the wealth and unique privilege of the macaronis probably meant they tested boundaries.

But let's be honest. Weird clothes? Jokes about masculinity and sexual experimentation? Bragging about their trips to Europe? You don't have to be an intellectual to understand why people made fun of macaronis:

Macaronis were annoying hipsters

Macaronis were annoying, that's inarguable.

Macaronis were annoying, that's inarguable.

Print Collector/Getty Images

Historians rightly chafe at historical analogies — they strip the complexity of history just to service our own limited imaginations. This is why if you say you wish you lived in the 1920s, somebody's going to joylessly tweet you a reminder about polio.

All that said, it's hard not to peg macaronis as early hipsters. From their absurd tastes to their unusual styles and even their ambiguous sexualities, they match the hipster template to a T.

And that makes Yankee Doodle an even more potent insult than if it were just about American country folk trying to be urbane. Instead, it's about these annoying hicks who think they can join the top class of hipsters (who are also annoying). Powdered wigs were the man buns of the 18th century.

If you tried to translate "Yankee Doodle" to the modern day, it might make sense to imagine a Wall Street banker singing:

Yankee Doodle went to Bushwick

in a purple Cooper-Mini,

put a rubber band around his legs,

and said his jeans were skinny.

And as additional proof of their naivety, Americans in the Revolutionary era took "Yankee Doodle" and started singing it as their own. They even kept doing it long after the macaronis had largely died by about the 1780s and completely disappeared by the 1800s.

It makes sense. After all, there's one immutable truth about hipsters: No hipster admits he's a hipster.

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