What Is the Origin of the Word Redneck?

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Depending on what region of the United States you hail from, the term “redneck” is either an insult or a badge of honor. Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour once proudly declared himself "a fat redneck" in a CNN interview. Comedian Jeff Foxworthy employed his trademark “You Might Be A Redneck If…” series to become a bestselling comedy recording artist. But while most people have an idea of what it means to be a “redneck,” not many know where the term originated and what it meant almost 400 years ago.

1 The Meaning of “Redneck” Today

Historian Patrick Huber, an expert on Southern U.S. culture, describes the term “redneck” as a “slur” referring to “a poor white man of the American South, and particularly one who holds conservative, reactionary or racist views.” Ken Bagwell, a writer for the Asheville Tribune says that “rednecks” are “white, and the vast majority of them are working class (blue-collar). Some are college degreed, some are not.” Even the dictionary has very little flattering to say. Merriam-Webster defines “redneck” as “a white person who lives in a small town or in the country especially in the southern U.S., who typically has a working-class job, and who is seen by others as being uneducated and having opinions and attitudes that are offensive.”

2 The Scottish “Rednecks”

While there are differing versions of the term’s origin, the first use of “redneck” appears to refer to the Scottish Covenanters of the 17th century, an independence movement created in response to England’s King Charles I, who took steps to bring Scotland’s Presbyterian church under his control. In 1638, Scottish Presbyterians signed the National Covenant, declaring their allegiance to their religion over the King of England. The Covenanters signed in blood, and to symbolize this oath, wore blood-red bandannas around their necks. Under English persecution, many Covenanters joined the Scottish migration to Ireland that began in the early 1600s.

3 The Scots-Irish Come To America

Scottish Presbyterians lived in Ireland for several generations. However, the 1704 Test Act required that all government officials and civil servants pass a test of allegiance to the Anglican church. Within about a decade, thousands of Scots-Irish migrated to the American colonies. Landing mostly in New England, they made their way south in search of open land. Eventually, the Scots-Irish spread throughout what today are the Southern states and many Southerners today trace their ancestry back to these migrants who brought not only their culture of rugged individualism and religious devotion, but also the term “redneck.”

4 Other Possible Origins Of “Redneck”

One theory traces the term redneck to wealthy Southern plantation owners who felt that, to justify their own supremacy, they needed to degrade poor, uneducated white people. They coined the term “redneck” to disparage white field laborers who could be identified by the bright red sunburns on their necks. Another possible origin of the term is in the West Virginia miners strikes of the 1920s. Facing a mercenary militia hired by millionaire coal barons, the miners took pains to become organized, adopting a uniform that featured a red bandanna worn around the neck. The miners nicknamed themselves “rednecks” as a point of solidarity.

Jonathan Vankin is an award-winning journalist with more than 20 years of experience. He has written for such publications as "The New York Times Magazine," "Wired" and Salon, covering technology, arts, sports, music and politics. Vankin is also the author of three nonfiction books and several graphic novels.