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Redneck is a disparaging term that refers to a person who is stereotypically Caucasian and of lower social-economic status in the United Statesmarker and Canadamarker, particularly referring to those living in rural areas. Originally limited to the Southern United States, and then to Appalachia, the term has become widely used throughout North America.

Etymology and Other Uses

The term has been used for different groups in different time periods. The most common American usage, that of the working class rural white Southerner, is generally believed to derive from individuals having a red neck caused by working outdoors in the sunlight over the course of their lifetime.

In the Dictionary of American Regional English, the earliest citation of the term in this context is from 1830, as "a name bestowed upon the Presbyterians of Fayetteville [North Carolina]". A citation from 1893 provides a definition as "poorer inhabitants of the rural who work in the field, as a matter of course, generally have their skin burned red by the sun, and especially is this true of the back of their necks".

Possible Scottish Covenanter Etymology

The National Covenant and The Solemn League and Covenant (also known as Covenanters) signed documents stating that Scotlandmarker desired a Presbyterian Church government, and rejected the Church of England as their official church. In doing so, the Covenanters rejected episcopacy—rule by bishops—the preferred form of church government in Englandmarker. Many of the Covenanters signed these documents using their own blood, and many in the movement began wearing red pieces of cloth around their neck to signify their position to the public. They were referred to as rednecks.

Large numbers of Scottish Presbyterians migrated from their lowland Scottish home to Ulster (the northern province of Ireland) during the plantation era. In the mid to late 18th century, they emigrated again to North America in considerable numbers, comprising the largest group of immigrants to the American colonies from the British Islesmarker before the American Revolution. This etymological theory holds that since many Scots-Irish Americans and Scottish Americans who settled in Appalachia and the South were Presbyterian, the term redneck was used for them and their descendants.

Use of the term for members of the National Mine Workers' Union

The term redneck was also used in The West Virginia Coal Miners March (1921) or the Battle of Blair Mountain when coal miners wore red bandannas around their necks to identify themselves as seeking the opportunity to unionize.

Use of the term for Irish Catholics

The term is recorded in the American Midwestern and Western States as referring to Irish Catholics. The earliest instance recorded in the Dictionary of American Regional English is from 1929, and this usage of the term remained current through the 1970s.

Historical usage

By the post-Reconstruction era (after the departure of Federal troops from the American South in 1874–1878), the term had worked its way into popular usage.

The post-Reconstruction may have much to do with the social, political and economic struggle between Populists, the Redeemers and Republican Carpetbaggers of the post-Civil War South and Appalachia, where the new middle class of the South (professionals, bankers, industrialists) displaced the pre-war planter class as the leaders of the Southern states. Elite whites regained dominance through the Democratic Party with deliberate use of paramilitary groups such as the White League and Red Shirts. They used violence to kill and intimidate voters, suppressing black and Republican voting in the late 1870s.

In the 1880s, the biracial Populist movement that temporarily gained power in several states challenged the conservative white Democrats. Its message of economic equality represented a threat to the status quo. Competition between white elites and lower classes, and the attempt to prevent alliances between lower class whites and African Americans, both formed part of the motivation for voter restrictions.

The elite of the South regained political control in the late 19th century. From 1890 to 1908, the white-dominated state legislatures passed disfranchising statutes and constitutional amendments that effectively barred most blacks and tens of thousands of poor whites from voting, thus also closing them out of juries and local offices. The use of a derogative term, such as redneck to belittle the working class, would have assisted in the gradual disenfranchisement of most of the Southern lower class, both black and white, which occurred by 1910. State legislatures also imposed legal racial segregation in these Jim Crow years, that persisted until the 1960s.

Modern usage

Southern comedian Jeff Foxworthy defines "redneck" as "a glorious absence of sophistication," stating "that we are all guilty of [it] at one time or another."

Redneck has two general uses: first, as a pejorative used by outsiders, and, second, as a term used by members within that group. To outsiders, it is generally a term for white people of Southern or Appalachianmarker rural poor backgrounds — or more loosely, rural poor to working-class people of rural extraction. (Appalachia also includes large parts of Pennsylvaniamarker, New Yorkmarker, and Ohiomarker.) In the West Coast, there are regionally specialized versions of the term, namely Okie and Arkie, for poor rural white migrants from respectively Oklahomamarker and Arkansasmarker, displaced from the Great Plains by the Dust Bowl years of the 1930s. Poor economic conditions across the Southern US also pushed people to migrate to the farming valleys of Californiamarker.

Generally, there is a continuum from the stereotypical redneck (a derisive term) to the country person; yet there are differences. In contrast to country people, stereotypical rednecks tend not to attend church, or do so infrequently. Further, "politically apathetic" may describe some members of this group. In some areas, such as eastern Tennessee, ethnic Scots-Irish were Unionists during and after the Civil War, and voted with Republicans. Except for those poor whites disfranchised by poll taxes and other devices, those who voted were generally part of the solidly white Democratic South that persisted after conservative whites regained power in the late 1870s. Some joined the biracial coalitions of Populist movements that came to brief power in the 1880s.

Although the stereotype of poor white Southerners and Appalachians in the early twentieth century was exaggerated in popular media, the problem of poverty was real. The national mobilization of troops in World War I (1917-18) enabled comparisons of draftees from the South and Appalachia and the rest of the country. Southern and Appalachian whites had less money, less education, and poorer health than white Americans in general.

In the early part of the 20th century, the boll weevil devastated the Deep South's cotton economy. In the 1930s, areas of the Great Plainsmarker, some within the boundaries of Texas, Oklahoma and Arkansas, or the Southwest, were devastated by the Dust Bowl years.

The Great Depression was a difficult era for the already disadvantaged in the South and Appalachia. In an echo of the Whiskey Rebellion, rednecks escalated their production and bootlegging of moonshine whiskey during Prohibition. To deliver it and avoid law-enforcement and tax agents, cars were "souped-up" to create a more maneuverable and faster vehicle. Many of the original drivers of stock car racing were former bootleggers and "ridge-runners." Federal programs originating in the New Deal-era Tennessee Valley Authority and the later Appalachian Regional Commission created jobs for rural southerners and others under the Works Progress Administration and Civilian Conservation Corps, as well as encouraging construction and development.

World War II (1941-45) meant economic development in the South and parts of Appalachia as the nation built up its industrial and military base. In and out of the armed forces, unskilled Southern and Appalachian whites, and many African Americans as well, were trained for industrial and commercial work they had never dreamed of attempting, much less mastering. The US government established military bases in Floridamarker, Georgia and Texasmarker to stimulate development. Big industrial plants began to appear across the once rural landscape. Many blue-collar families from the South and Appalachia found their way to white-collar life in metropolitan areas like Atlantamarker. By the 1960s some blacks had begun to share in this progress, but blacks and whites in more isolated rural areas continued to have economic difficulties.

Late 20th century writer Edward Abbey, as well as Dave Foreman may have adopted the word's possible secondary historical origin among striking coal miners to describe white rural working-class radicalism. "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."

Author Jim Goad's 1997 book The Redneck Manifesto explores the socioeconomic history of low-income Americans. According to Goad, rednecks are traditionally pro-labor and anti-establishment and have an anti-hierarchical religious orientation.

Popular culture

The Grand Ole Oprymarker 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 sophisticated and intelligent 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 Georgiamarker, 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. 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 have 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.

See also


  1. [1] Definition from the Merriam Webster Online Dictionary
  2. Wentworth, Harold, and Stuart Berg Flexner, Dictionary of American Slang (1975) p. 424
  3. "Red Necks and Red Bandanas: Appalachian Coal Miners and the Coloring of Union Identity, 1912-1936"
  4. Addison, Kenneth N. (2009) We Hold These Truths to Be Self-Evident...: An Interdisciplinary Analysis of the Roots of Racism and Slavery in America. Lantham, MD: University Press of America.
  5. Frederic Gomes Cassidy & Joan Houston Hall, Dictionary of American Regional English, Harvard University Press, 2002, pg 531.
  6. Fischer, David Hackett. (1989) Albion's Seed, Four British Folkways in America. New York: Oxford University Press.
  7. redneck (1989) Oxford English Dictionary second edition. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  8. Blizzard, William C. (2005) When Miners March: The Story of Coal Miners in West Virginia. Gay, WV: Appalachian Community Services.
  9. Frederic Gomes Cassidy & Joan Houston Hall, Dictionary of American Regional English, Harvard University Press, 2002, pg 532.
  10. George C. Rable, But There Was No Peace: The Role of Violence in the Politics of Reconstruction, Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1984, p. 132
  11. Michael Perman.Struggle for Mastery: Disfranchisement in the South, 1888–1908. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2001, Introduction
  12. Richard H. Pildes, "Democracy, Anti-Democracy, and the Canon", Constitutional Commentary, Vol.17, 2000, pp.12-13 Accessed March 10, 2008
  13. The South Magazine
  14. Bookchin, Murray; Foreman, Dave. " Defending the Earth: A Dialogue Between Murray Bookchin and Dave Foreman, South End Press, 1991. See Page 95
  15. America's favorite redneck. - By Bryan Curtis - Slate Magazine


  • Abbey, Edward. "In Defense of the Redneck", from Abbey's Road: Take the Other. New York: E. P. Dutton, 1979
  • Goad, Jim. The Redneck Manifesto: How Hillbillies, Hicks, and White Trash Became America's Scapegoats, New York: Simon & Schuster, 1997
  • Webb, James H. Born Fighting: How the Scots-Irish Shaped America. New York: Broadway Books, 2004
  • 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

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