Whether kids learn the song “Yankee Doodle” from their parents, at school, or from TV, it sounds like a nonsense song because the first verse makes no sense at all. It’s often years later that we learn the song was originally intended to mock Americans, and we only embraced it out of stubbornness and a desire to declare ourselves separate from our British overlords. But there’s still more to learn about the language in the song.
The “macaroni” in question does not, however, refer to the food, but rather to a fashion trend that began in the 1760s among aristocratic British men.
On returning from a Grand Tour (a then-standard trip across Continental Europe intended to deepen cultural knowledge), these young men brought to England a stylish sense of fashion consisting of large wigs and slim clothing as well as a penchant for the then-little-known Italian dish for which they were named. In England at large, the word “macaroni” took on a larger significance. To be “macaroni” was to be sophisticated, upper class, and worldly.
In “Yankee Doodle,” then, the British were mocking what they perceived as the Americans’ lack of class. The first verse is satirical because a doodle—a simpleton—thinks that he can be macaroni—fashionable—simply by sticking a feather in his cap. In other words, he is out of touch with high society.
So what did “macaroni” style really look like? It was a fashion trend for the relatively young and status-conscious, and there was plenty of ridicule even for those who got it right. Read about macaroni fashion at Atlas Obscura.