Call someone a “redneck” below the Mason-Dixon, and you’re just as likely to receive a conciliatory smile as a condemning wallop. There is no true definition of the name; some Southerners bear the label with pride, while others perceive it as a disparaging insult. Of course, most Americans assume redneck originated with field laborers in recent centuries, that the word refers to a group whose economic standing and constant presence in the furrows of fields, bent over budding plants, lent them a persistent sunburn of the back of their necks. While this is partially true, the appellation’s roots are far more tangled and complex. Tracing the lineage of redneck provides some insight into the term, the various glimpses of the word throughout history serving as illuminated mile markers along the path to its origins.
Since the 1970’s, the term redneck has taken on almost entirely negative connotations. Most definitions attribute “redneck” with being four things: Southern, white, poor, and uneducated. The term is also associated, to an extent, with bigotry and prejudice. Yet modern Southerners have taken the moniker of their own accord, wearing the badge and certain of its associations with pride. Celebrities like Jeff Foxworthy, whose “You Might be a Redneck If—” stand-up comedy routine propelled him to fame, brought the designation into the limelight, poking fun at the term while still accepting it. Being Southern with traditional values and without a pompous streak, many claim, is nothing to be ashamed of, regardless of economic class or job title. Within recent decades, however, “redneck” has much more commonly been used as an insult than as an identifier.
But that was not always the case. In 1893, the Dictionary of American Regional English defined rednecks 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.” A mere ten years later, however, “redneck” was actually associated with politics. At the turn of the twentieth century, the Democratic party was a major force in the South, with distinct factions and groups comprising the party. A strong group of representatives included poor white farmers, men who were generally referred to as “rednecks,” or “wool hat boys” (silk hats were worn by richer members of the party). But rather than shrug off the name with shame, the farmers embraced it, proud to represent their party. By 1910, some of these Democratic “rednecks” even took to wearing red handkerchiefs, brandishing their label with dignity.
Around the same time as those Democratic rednecks, another politically charged redneck was rising in the South, but these were not associated with sunburn or the fields. The coal mines of Appalachia, long an unchallenged and exploitative enterprise, were finally being challenged in the early twentieth century. Because of the rural remoteness of the mines, and because many poor Appalachians had no other source of income, the system had stood, but the unionization of the field changed the landscape drastically. Coal miners and union members needed a way to distinguish themselves, to parade their membership, and they, too, chose a red handkerchief as their symbol. Like their political counterparts, rednecks of the coal mines wore their red handkerchiefs as a symbol of solidarity.
Although rednecks have been figures of the American landscape for some time, the idiom’s lineage stretches even further back in history and all the way across the Atlantic. Though the debate of Scottish independence still rages on today, ties between England and Scotland were far tenser during the seventeenth century. In 1637 King Charles I of England demanded that his Scottish subjects abandon their Presbyterian church in favor of the Church of England. Rightfully indignant, certain Scottish citizens signed the National Covenant in 1638, swearing allegiance to religion over the King and signing the oath in blood. As a symbol of their fidelity to the Scottish Presbyterian Church and a hearkening to their pledge, the Covenanters began wearing blood-red bandanas around their necks—and hence the term “redneck” was born. These dissenters, as they were perceived by the overruling English, eventually migrated to Ireland, and from Ireland to America, finally coming to settle below the Mason-Dixon. Their ancestors live on today, still sporting the title of “redneck.”
And so we see that “redneck” cannot be so easily reduced to an insult or constricted by definitions of occupation. One common denominator among these various rednecks, however, is the refusal to pander to society at large: each example—Southern, Scottish, or something in between—defended and proclaimed their rights, often against great odds. And if that’s what being a redneck means, then tie a handkerchief around my neck, and I’ll walk to the fields with pride.