Redneck is a derogatory slang term used in reference to poor, uneducated white farmers, especially from the southern United States. It is 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 to refer to bigoted, loutish reactionaries who are opposed to modern ways, and has often been 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 Southern whites have reclaimed the word, using it with pride and defiance as a self-identifier.

The term characterized farmers as having a red, sunburnt neck 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.

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 (niacin deficiency) 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 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. It originated as a negative epithet. Apparently, coal operators, company guards, non-union miners, and strikebreakers were among the first to use the term 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.

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 essayist and ecological activist 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.’

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’ as well as Craig Morgan with his song, ‘Redneck Yacht Club’ released in 2005. 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. Canadian Paul Brandt, a self-identified redneck, says that primarily the term indicates independence.

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.

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