According to one popular joke, “You might be a redneck if you’ve heard a sheep bleat and had romantic thoughts.” Another goes, “You might be a redneck if your mother keeps a spit cup on the ironing board.” Among the litany of class slurs used to ridicule poor and working-class white southerners, redneck ranks as the most popular in modern American English, and the stereotype of the benighted southern redneck, as depicted in such films as Easy Rider (1970) and Pulp Fiction (1994), remains one of the most pernicious, distinctive, and widespread in American popular culture. For more than a century, this pejorative term has been used to denigrate rural, poor white men of the American South, particularly those who hold conservative, racist, or reactionary views.
The epithet redneck emerged as a rural class slur in the Deep South in the last decades of the nineteenth century. Its first known appearance in print came in the 13 August 1891 issue of the Pontotoc Democrat, which published the epithet along with several others (yaller-heels, hayseeds, gray dillers) during a hotly contested political campaign for state representative. Two years later, Hubert A. Shands recorded its use in “Some Peculiarities of Speech in Mississippi,” his 1893 University of Mississippi doctoral dissertation. “Red-neck,” he reported, is “a name applied by the better class of people to the poorer [white] inhabitants of the rural districts.” According to most scholars of the American language, redneck originally derived from an allusion to sunburn when a pale white complexion was still a significant class marker. One prevailing theory suggests that urban white professionals and large planters coined the slur to denigrate those white farmers, sharecroppers, and agricultural laborers who had sunburned red necks from working in the fields. Other linguists have speculated redneck may have originated in black English. According to this theory, African American slaves coined the term peckerwood, a folk inversion of woodpecker, to ridicule poor whites and that redneck may in some way be related to the red head of some species of woodpeckers. Whatever its derivation, early usage of redneck suggests that the term ridiculed not only the sweaty, manual labor of farmers and agricultural workers but also their perceived deviation from a pale white complexion.
Redneck did not come into common currency in southern speech until the 1930s, when it was increasingly used to describe racists, bigots, or reactionaries. By the 1960s the term’s connotations of racism and bigotry had become firmly cemented, especially for African Americans. At Oxford, Ohio, site of the training sessions for the 1964 Mississippi Freedom Summer, experienced instructors prepared college-age civil rights volunteers for the violence they could expect to encounter from Mississippi segregationists by using a role-playing game, Redneck and Nigger. But in this context, redneck lost many of its class and regional connotations, as it came to be applied indiscriminately to any white racist, regardless of class position or birthplace.
During the 1970s redneck underwent a dramatic rehabilitation and emerged as a badge of regional class identity. Rural and working-class white southerners refashioned the epithet into a positive term to mean an honest, hardworking, God-fearing blue-collar workingman. As a result, large numbers of white southerners began referring to themselves proudly as rednecks. The 1976 election of Pres. Jimmy Carter—a wealthy but plainspoken Georgia peanut farmer who sometimes described himself and was described by Washington political reporters as “basically a redneck”—also helped to rehabilitate the term’s definition. The most famous redneck of the Carter era, however, was the president’s brother, Billy Carter, who on occasion hammed it up for photographers in a “Redneck Power” T-shirt with a cold beer in hand and regaled reporters with his down-home anecdotes at his Plains, Georgia, gas station. To identify oneself as a redneck suddenly became fashionable, a national craze that journalist Paul Hemphill termed “redneck chic.” Dozens of guidebooks and articles taught redneck wannabes how to act the part convincingly. Female derivatives of this traditionally masculine term also gained popularity, including redneck girl, redneck mother, and redneck woman. Nashville also played a significant role in the reinvention of redneck identity. Beginning in the 1970s the term redneck surfaced as a badge of pride in numerous country songs, including David Allen Coe’s “Long-Haired Redneck” (1975), Vern Oxford’s “Redneck! (The Redneck National Anthem)” (1976), and Jerry Reed’s “(I’m Just a) Redneck in a Rock and Roll Bar” (1977), to name only a few.
Although derogatory images of southern rednecks continue to abound in American popular culture, in less than a century the term has also come to represent a positive affirmation of identity for countless white Americans, including many who are not from the South.
- F. N. Boney, Georgia Review (Fall 1971)
- Jim Goad, The Redneck Manifesto: How Hillbillies, Hicks, and White Trash Became America’s Scapegoats (1997)
- Patrick Huber, “Rednecks and Woolhats, Hoosiers and Hillbillies: Working-Class Southern Whites, Language, and the Definition of Identity” (master’s thesis, University of Missouri-Columbia, 1992)
- Patrick Huber, Southern Cultures (Winter 1995)
- Albert D. Kirwan, Revolt of the Rednecks: Mississippi Politics, 1876–1925 (1951)
- V. S. Naipaul, A Turn in the South (1989)
- John Shelton Reed, Southern Folk, Plain and Fancy: Native White Social Types (1986)
- Raymond S. Rodgers, Journal of Regional Cultures (Fall–Winter 1982)