Redneck is a historically derogatory slang term used in reference to poor white farmers in the Southern United States.It is similar in meaning to cracker (especially regarding Georgia and Alabama), hillbilly (especially regarding Appalachia and the Ozarks), and white trash.
In recent decades, the term expanded its meaning to mean bigoted, loutish, and opposed to modern ways, and has often been used to attack Southern conservatives and racists. At the same time, some Southern whites have reclaimed the word, using it with pride and defiance as a self-identifier.
Political term for poor farmers
The term is probably derived from individuals having a red neck caused by sunburn or a mixture of sweat and the dust of red clay dirt common in the southern states. A citation from 1893 provides a definition as “poorer inhabitants of the rural districts…men who work in the field, as a matter of course, generally have their skin stained red and burnt by the sun, and especially is this true of the back of their necks”.
By 1900, “rednecks” was in common use to designate the political coalitions of the poor white farmers in the South. The same group was also often called the “wool hat boys” (for they opposed the rich men, who wore expensive silk hats). A newspaper notice in Mississippi in August 1891 called on rednecks to rally at the polls at the upcoming primary election:
Primary on the 25th.
And the “rednecks” will be there.
And the “Yaller-heels” will be there, also.
And the “hayseeds” and “gray dillers,” they’ll be there, too.
And the “subordinates” and “subalterns” will be there to rebuke their slanderers and traducers.
And the men who pay ten, twenty, thirty, etc. etc. per cent on borrowed money will be on hand, and they’ll remember it, too.
By 1910, the political supporters of the Mississippi politician James K. Vardaman—chiefly poor white farmers—began to describe themselves proudly as “rednecks,” even to the point of wearing red neckerchiefs to political rallies and picnics.
By the 1970s, the term had turned into offensive slang and had expanded its meaning to mean bigoted, loutish and opposed to modern ways, and was often used to attack Southern conservatives and segregationists.
The United Mine Workers of America (UMW) and rival miners’ unions appropriated both the term redneck and its literal manifestation, the red bandana, in order to build multiracial unions of white, black, and immigrant miners in the strike-ridden coalfields of northern and central Appalachia between 1912 and 1936. The origin of redneck to mean “a union man” or “a striker” remain uncertain, but according to linguist David W. Maurer, the former definition of the word probably dates at least to the 1910s, if not earlier. The use of redneck to designate “a union member” was especially popular during the 1920s and 1930s in the coal-producing regions of southern West Virginia, eastern Kentucky, and western Pennsylvania, where the word came to be specifically applied to a miner who belonged to a union.
The term can be found throughout McAllister Coleman and Stephen Raushenbush’s 1936 socialist proletarian novel, Red Neck, which recounts the story of a charismatic union leader named Dave Houston and an unsuccessful strike by his fellow union miners in the fictional coalfield town of Laurel, Pennsylvania. The word’s varied usage can be seen in the following two examples from the book. “I’m not much to be proud of,” Houston admits to his admiring girlfriend Madge in one scene. “I’m just a red necked miner like the rest.” In another scene, a police captain curses Houston as a “God-damned red neck” during a fruitless jailhouse interrogation, before savagely beating him with a sawed-off chair-leg.
The earliest printed uses of the word red-neck in a coal-mining context date from the 1912-1913 Paint and Cabin Creeks strike in southern West Virginia and from the 1913-1914 Trinidad District strike in southern Colorado. It is not known where the term originated. UMW national organizers quite possibly transported “redneck” from one section of the country to the other. Then again, its popularizers may have been agents of the Baldwin-Feltz Detective Agency, an industrial espionage and mine security company headquartered in Bluefield, West Virginia, who worked as company guards and spies in both the West Virginia and the Colorado strikes. What is relatively certain, however, is that it originated as a negative epithet. Apparently, coal operators, company guards, non-union miner, and strikebreakers were among the first to use the redneck in a labor context when they derided union miners with the slur. According to industrial folklorist George Korson, non-union miners derisively called strikers “rednecks” in the Appalachian coalfields, while slurring them as “sweaters” in Oklahoma and the southwestern coalfields. It is possible that redneck emerged in strike-ridden coalfields to mean “union miner” independently of its use in the deep south. Clearly, the best explanation of redneck to mean “union man” is that the word refers to the red handkerchiefs that striking union coal miners in both southern West Virginia and southern Colorado often wore around their necks or arms as a part of their informal uniform.
Late 20th and early 21st century
Late 20th century writers Edward Abbey and Dave Foreman use “redneck” as a political call to mobilize poor rural white Southerners. “In Defense of the Redneck” was a popular essay by Ed Abbey. One popular early Earth First! bumper sticker was “Rednecks for Wilderness.” Murray Bookchin, an urban leftist and social ecologist, objected strongly to Earth First!’s use of the term as “at the very least, insensitive.”
But many members of the Southern community have proudly embraced the term as a self-identifier. Among those who dispute that the term is disparaging, Canadian Paul Brandt, a self-identified redneck, says that primarily the term indicates independence.
The Grand Ole Opry and Hee Haw are popular entertainments from years past, and they, as well as entertainers Hank Williams, Grandpa Jones and Jerry Clower, have seen lasting popularity within the redneck community. Entertainers like Minnie Pearl used homespun comedy as much as music to create a lasting persona, and musicians like Earl Scruggs and Lester Flatt appeared on shows such as The Beverly Hillbillies, lending credence to broad humor about uncomplicated rural Americans.
According to James C. Cobb, a history professor at the University of Georgia, the redneck comedian “provided a rallying point for bourgeois and lower-class whites alike. With his front-porch humor and politically outrageous bons mots, the redneck comedian created an illusion of white equality across classes.”
Johnny Russell was nominated for a Grammy Award in 1973 for his recording of “Rednecks, White Socks and Blue Ribbon Beer,” parlaying the “common touch” into financial and critical success. Rednecks is a song by Randy Newman, the lead-off track on his 1974 album Good Old Boys. Country music singer Gretchen Wilson titled one of her songs “Redneck Woman” on her 2004 album Here for the Party.
In recent years, the comedy of Jeff Foxworthy, Ron White, Bill Engvall, and Larry the Cable Guy has become popular through the “Blue Collar Comedy Tour” and Blue Collar TV. Foxworthy’s 1993 comedy album You Might Be a Redneck If… cajoled listeners to evaluate their own behavior in the context of stereotypical redneck behavior, and resulted in more mainstream usage of the term.
Scottish Covenanter usage
In Scotland in the 1640s the Covenanter’s rejected rule by bishops, often signing manifestos using their own blood. Some wore red cloth around their neck to signify their position, and were called rednecks by the English ruling class to denote that they were the rebels in what came to be known as The Bishop’s War that preceded the rise of Cromwell. Eventually, the term began to mean simply “Presbyterian”, especially in communities along the Scottish border. Because of the large number of Scottish immigrants in the pre-revolutionary American south, some historians have suggested that this may be the origin of the term in the United States.
Dictionaries document the earliest American citation of the term’s use for Presbyterians in 1830, as “a name bestowed upon the Presbyterians of Fayetteville [North Carolina]”.