The term Redneck is chiefly used for a poor rural white person of the Southern United States. It can be a derogatory slang term similar in meaning to cracker (especially regarding Georgia and Florida), hillbilly (especially regarding Appalachia and the Ozarks), and white trash (but without the last term's suggestions of immorality).
By the 2000s, the term had expanded in meaning beyond the poor Southerner to to refer to bigoted, loutish reactionary Americans who are opposed to modern ways. It is often used to attack white Southern conservatives. The term is also used broadly to degrade working class and rural whites that are perceived by urban progressives to be insufficiently liberal. At the same time, some white Southerners have reclaimed the word, using it with pride and defiance as a self-identifier.
Political term for poor farmers
The term characterized farmers having a red neck caused by sunburn from hours working in the fields. 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 factions inside the Democratic Party comprising 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 Democratic Party 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.
Linguist Sterling Eisiminger, based on the testimony of informants from the Southern United States, speculates that the prevalence of pellagra in the region during the great depression may have contributed to the rise in popularity of the term since red, inflamed skin is one of the first symptoms of that disorder to appear.
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 as a term to attack Southern white conservatives and racists.
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" remains 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 who says to his girl, "I'm not much to be proud of. I'm just a red necked miner like the rest."
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. According to folklorist George Korson, non-union miners derisively called strikers "rednecks" in the Appalachian coalfields. 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.
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. Further songs referencing rednecks include Rednecks by Randy Newman, Redneck Woman by Gretchen Wilson, Redneck Yacht Club by Craig Morgan, Redneck by Lamb of God, Redneck Crazy by Tyler Farr, and Your Redneck Past by Ben Folds Five.
Comedian Jeff 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.
Historical Scottish Covenanter usage
In Scotland in the 1640s, the Covenanters 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 Scottish 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.
- Culture of the Southern United States
- List of ethnic slurs
- Plain Folk of the Old South
- Redlegs – poor whites that live on Barbados and a few other Caribbean islands.
- Harold Wentworth, and Stuart Berg Flexner, Dictionary of American Slang (1975) p. 424.
- "Redneck - Definition and More". Merriam Webster. Retrieved January 25, 2014.
- Anthony Harkins, Hillbilly, A Cultural History of an American Icon, Oxford University Press (2004), p. 39.
- Wray (2006) p. x
- Ernest Cashmore and James Jennings, eds. Racism: essential readings (2001) p. 36.
- Jim Goad, The Redneck Manifesto: How Hillbillies, Hicks, and White Trash Became America's Scapegoats (1998) pp. 17–19
- Barbara Ann Kipfer and Robert L. Chapman, American Slang (2008) p. 404
- William Safire, Safire's political dictionary (2008) p. 612
- Goad, The Redneck Manifesto: How Hillbillies, Hicks, and White Trash Became America's Scapegoats (1998) p. 18
- Frederic Gomes Cassidy & Joan Houston Hall, Dictionary of American Regional English (2002) p. 531.
- Albert D. Kirwan, Revolt of the Rednecks: Mississippi Politics 1876-1925 (1951).
- Patrick Huber and Kathleen Morgan Drowne, "Redneck: A New Discovery," American Speech 76.4 (2001) 434-437.
- Kirwan (1951), p. 212.
- Sterling Eisiminger (Autumn 1984). "Redneck". American Speech 59 (3): 284.
- Robert L. Chapman, Dictionary of American Slang (1995) p. 459; William Safire, Safire's Political Dictionary (2008) pp. 612-13; Tom Dalzell, The New Partridge Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English: J-Z (2005) 2:1603.
- Patrick Huber, "Red Necks and Red Bandanas: Appalachian Coal Miners and the Coloring of Union Identity, 1912-1936," Western Folklore, Winter 2006.
- Bookchin, Murray; Foreman, Dave. Defending the Earth: A Dialogue Between Murray Bookchin and Dave Foreman. South End Press. 1991. p. 95.
- Kyff, Rob (August 3, 2007). "Embrace Slurs, Reclaim Pride". Hartford Courant. p. D.10. Retrieved 2010-06-30. "Many southerners have adopted the disparaging term redneck as a banner of pride."
- Page, Clarence (July 18, 1989). "'Redneck' is not a word that a politician should take lightly". The Milwaukee Sentinel. Retrieved July 30, 2010.[dead link]
- "Country singer Brandt proud to be a 'redneck'". Canwest News Service. November 28, 2007. Retrieved 2010-06-30.
- Fischer, David Hackett. (1989) Albion's Seed: Four British Folkways in America. New York: Oxford University Press.
- redneck (1989); Oxford English Dictionary second edition. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
- Herman, Arthur, How the Scots Invented the Modern World. New York: Three Rivers Press, 2001, p. 235.
- The All England Law Reports Reprint: Being a Selection from the Law Times Reports, 1843-1935, retrieved 16 December 2013, quote: "At the meeting the appellant called Roman Catholics "rednecks," a name most insulting to them, and challenged them to get up."
- Abbey, Edward. "In Defense of the Redneck", from Abbey's Road: Take the Other. New York: E. P. Dutton, 1979
- Ferrence, Matthew, “You Are and You Ain’t: Story and Literature as Redneck Resistance,” Journal of Appalachian Studies, 18 (Spring–Fall 2012), 113–30.
- Goad, Jim. The Redneck Manifesto: How Hillbillies, Hicks, and White Trash Became America's Scapegoats, New York: Simon & Schuster, 1997
- West, Stephen A. From Yeoman to Redneck in the South Carolina Upcountry, 1850–1915 (2008)
- Weston, Ruth D. "The Redneck Hero in the Postmodern World", South Carolina Review, Spring 1993
- Wilson, Charles R. and William Ferris, eds. Encyclopedia of Southern Culture, (1989)
- Wray, Matt. Not Quite White: White Trash and the Boundaries of Whiteness (2006)
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- Poor Whites — The Georgia Encyclopedia (history)