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Where Does The Term 'Redneck' Come From? How Redneck Culture Was Originally Far Left

Historical Facts | January 10, 2021

Comedian Jeff Foxworthy is shown performing on stage during a "live" concert appearance on April 12, 2014. (John Atashian/Getty Images)

The term "redneck" has been used for over a century to describe (sometimes derogatorily) white, working-class people without higher education from rural America and/or the South. While some may use it to belittle others, some find solidarity, identification, and humor in the term. Comedian Jeff Foxworthy, for instance, made his entire fortune off the word with his wildly successful "... you might be a redneck" routine. But just where did this term come from, and how did it become so popular?

The Sunburn Theory

It's always hard to know just where a word originated, especially slang words, as they leave little behind in terms of paper trails. However, the general consensus is that around the late 19th century, people likely began calling white field workers "rednecks" due to the sunburns they routinely received on the backs of their necks after hours of toiling in the sun.

By the 20th century, "redneck" was a common classification of white field workers or farmers, and not necessarily in a negative sense. For example, the Democratic Party advertised an upcoming election in a Mississippi newspaper in 1891 by boasting that "the 'rednecks' [would] be there," along with other slang terms for various blue-collar professions. Over the next decade, white, working-class people began to self-identify as "rednecks" and even began wearing red handkerchiefs around their necks in a display of pride in their region and profession.

Two union coal miners sitting in a sniper's nest with a machine gun. (Kinograms/Wikimedia Commons)

The Red Neck Army

The term became ubiquitous in the 1920s due to a massive uprising of coal miners against their company's anti-union enforcers. Things took an ugly turn when a pro-union sheriff by the name of Sid Hatfield, who had previously been involved in a gunfight that left several officers and the town mayor dead after the Stone Mountain Coal Company attempted a mass eviction, was assassinated in August 1921 in an ambush by private agents employed by Stone Mountain.

Thousands of miners from the region convened in Matewan, West Virginia to aid unionization efforts and demand the release of prisoners, wearing red handkerchiefs around their necks to identify one another and show solidarity, becoming known as the "Red Neck Army." The ordeal ended in the Battle of Blair Mountain, the largest battle since the Civil War, that left dozens dead on both sides.

Woody Guthrie in 1943 with his guitar labeled "This machine kills fascists." (Library of Congress/Wikimedia Commons)

From Guthrie To Garth

The Battle of Blair Mountain was big news in left-leaning, pro-union communities across the country, and the "redneck" became a symbol of the white, working-class struggle, especially as the natural antithesis of the rich corporations which abused and mistreated them. For a short time, it became slang for people in general who were pro-union or even Communists, and traces of this sentiment can be found in folk music of the era. In the 1940s, folk legend Woody Guthrie lamented the suffering of "the red-neck miners" in the song "Ludlow Massacre," and later in the 1990s, mainstream country musicians celebrated the term in a broader sense, seen in Gretchen Wilson's "Redneck Woman" and Alan Jackson's "It's Alright To Be A Redneck," among others.

However, the word has also picked up some negative connotations, especially around issues regarding race and populist politics. To many modern ears, a "redneck" is someone who is ignorant, unintelligent, racist, and/or politically unsophisticated, but this hasn't stopped many in the rural areas of America or the South from adopting the word as a personal identifier and using it with pride.

Words like "redneck" are best viewed through an area of linguistics known as semiotics, which has to do with intention and context. Are you using the word "redneck" as an insult? Then it's an insult. Are you using the word to refer to your own lifestyle in a fond and loving way? In that case, as Foxworthy says, you might be a redneck, and according to the American coal miners of 1921, that's A-okay.

Tags: common expressions | historical facts | politics

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