Better Use “Redneck” with Care

By Maeve Maddox

A man speaking in a city board meeting in my town this week got into trouble for using the word “redneck.” He was arguing that shrinking city funds would be better spent on maintaining the local cable access channel than on Christmas lights in the town square. He stirred up a storm of protest when he referred to the city employees putting up the lights as “highly-paid rednecks.”

The uproar got me thinking about this term, one of my least favorite group designators.

As far as I can interpret the man’s remarks, he wanted to convey the thought that the cable channel, as a means of communicating the workings of the city government, is of more value than mere seasonal display. So why did he choose to call the men putting up the lights rednecks instead of, say, workers?

The mind functions in curious ways. Our thoughts reside there in layers upon layers. Sometimes what may seem like an insignificant word choice reveals a layer we may not even be aware of. The speaker came to Arkansas from California. He may not realize it himself, but his choice of the word “redneck” suggests an attitude of superiority towards the natives.

For those readers who may not be familiar with the term, redneck in modern American usage is used chiefly to refer to a perceived type of Southern white person. The term has been used in other contexts with other possible origins, but the term, as popularized by standup comic Jeff Foxworthy, probably derives from the sunburned necks of outdoor laborers. Foxworthy, a native of Georgia, can use the term with impunity, rather as black comics can get away with nigger. Depending upon who is using it, the word redneck can be inoffensive or deeply pejorative.

As used in country songs, redneck carries a connotation of pride along with the characteristics of patriotism, belief in God, self-respect, and independence. This kind of redneck probably drives a pickup truck and owns a gun. He’s not afraid of hard work and would rather go hungry than accept charity in any form. He mistrusts overeducated people and prefers the country or small town to the city.

As used by outsiders, redneck seems to have replaced “hillbilly” as a word to stereotype Southerners. As a term of opprobrium, a redneck not only drives a pickup and owns a gun, he is loud, often drunk, ignorant, bigoted, xenophobic, and trashy. He dresses like a slob, speaks with a southern accent, fills his yard with junk, and has no appreciation of the finer things of life.

The term has its uses, both in conversation and in writing, but it can be volatile and is best used with care.

You’ll find further information about redneck and other terms often applied in a pejorative sense to Southerners here (Update: page no longer online).

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17 Responses to “Better Use “Redneck” with Care”

  • Mari

    Pardon my language, but I tend to get pissy when “outsiders” misuse redneck and hillbilly. I grew up a hillbilly and am in many ways still one. But I have never been and never will be a redneck, thankyouverymuch, plzktx! :gggrrrrr: Best used with care – I wholeheartedly agree.

  • Jeff Waters

    I could certainly be wrong, but I believe most people who might be labeled as rednecks actually take pride in the term. It’s most usual definition follows the “country music” definition listed above. Hick and hillbilly are more obviously meant (and taken) as put-downs.

    I grew up in Southern Indiana farm country and now make my home in New England. I have a strong technical and business education and appreciate all sorts of music and art. I still take great pride in my redneck roots, though. Even though I understand the word “pejoritive” without looking in a dictionary, I still consider myself a redneck.

    It’s a powerful and spicy word that should certainly be used by writers where appropriate.

  • Hal

    If we are to be subjected to political correctness, then I see no difference in any word that denigrates one group over another. In the US, the word nigger is now considered the most heinous word anyone can use, yet those of us from the south are still referred to as dimwitted rednecks.

    I have always felt it was improper to refer to anyone in terms of a negative concept, fat people, black people, whatever, is hurtful. On the other hand, watching certain lives ruined because they said something stupid (nappy-headed Ho comes to mind) gives me pause to rethink what is happening.

    Don’t call me a brier and I won’t call you a nigger may be a petty attitude, but maybe it’s time to say, enough.

  • Jeff Waters

    Wow… I just noticed that I used “it’s” improperly on my previous comment. I can’t think of a worse place to make that mistake!

    Anyway, I just don’t see how the word redneck denigrates anyone. I see it as about the same as Yankee. Dimwitted Yankee might be bad, of course.

    It’s crazy to equate the hurtfullness and negativity of words like nigger and redneck. Not the same ballpark. Not even the same game.

  • Hal

    Jeff, with all due respect, I think your notion that redneck is a playful name is a bit naive. Let’s put it in a new context.
    Would you walk into an all black bar and yell “Hey nigger?”
    I doubt that you would.
    Would you walk into a white bar in Tennessee and yell “Hey redneck?”
    You might, but then you might have a problem leaving with all your limbs intact.

    I don’t know of any group hate-names that don’t hurt someone. As far as something like “damned Yankee”, some people say it with a sneer. Whether we like it or not, someone hates us because we identify with a certain group or ethnicity.

    Because I don’t like to be on the receiving end of things like this, I try very hard not to perpetuate it, and that includes even Yankees.

  • Rhonda

    In regards to the history of the word “redneck”, it’s traced back to Appalachia (Bluefield, WV, to be exact) during the time of the coal mining wars. Because neighbors often fought for opposing sides (either the miners or the coal companies) the miners, a.k.a., the laborers, wore red bandanas around their necks, to designate where their loyalties lay. News reporters called them “rednecks”. Hence, the term.

    If fighting for what you believe causes one to be called a redneck, count me among those with a blushing collarbone!

    Rhonda

  • Silvia

    What about using “hick” and “yokel?” Where I grew up in NY State, we used the term “hick” to refer to someone who was backwards, uneducated, lived in the boondocks, etc. When I moved to the south, I assumed “redneck” was just another way of saying “hick.”

  • Hal

    Historically, redneck may have meant something different than it does today. There are a number of words that are offensive to people who working class white people. From the dictionary:

    redneck |ˈredˌnek|
    noun informal derogatory
    a working-class white person, esp. a politically reactionary one from a rural area : rednecks in the high, cheap seats stomped their feet and hooted | [as adj. ] a place of redneck biases.
    DERIVATIVES
    rednecked adjective
    ORIGIN from the back of the neck being sunburned from outdoor work.

    Thesaurus
    redneck informal
    noun
    growing up, the only men she knew were church elders and rednecks provincial, yokel; conservative, reactionary; informal yahoo, hick, hayseed.

    Doesn’t sound like “playful” terminology to me.

  • Brittany

    Hay, I think most people just throw everythin out of porpotion. I mean most people dont understand the true meanin of bein a redneck ya know? People go around runnin their yaps talkin crap about rednecks. A redneck back in the day was described as someone who is hard working, doesnt give a cows butt about doin work, rednecks are proud of what they do. We rednecks dont really take it offensively when you try to make fun of us for the way we are. To me bein a redneck is an honor, I work outside everyday, love country music, I believe in my God, I love my family and man, I love muddin, and people criticize me for that. What gives? I mean seriously, ya wouldnt like me to go around makin fun of u for bein a city slicker.

  • Will

    Ah, completely agree with what you’re saying. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve played Halo on X box Live, and my accent automatically makes everyone refer to me as a redneck.

    Growing up and living in the more rural parts of Tennessee, I suppose my accent might be ‘slightly’ southern, but I fail to see how that has anything to do with my intelligence.

    I suppose I’m proud to be a ‘redneck’, even though I don’t meet all of the criteria such as being a Christian.

  • Stephen Thorn

    Speaking as someone who was raised on a farm with no indoor toilet and still calls himself a redneck with a measure of pride, I have to say the context would be the crucial issue to me. If anyone called me a good ol’ redneck, I wouldn’t be offended in the least; but if anyone called me a dumb ol’ redneck it would certainly put my hackles up. I will admit that I get angry when the term is used JUST BECAUSE it is one of the many “goose/gander” slights. I’m referring to ‘you can’t call X-people THIS WORD because it’s offensive but you can call Y-people THAT WORD because Y-people aren’t going to beat your head in for it.’ Example: no magazine would run an ad for Cadillacs with the text “Just the thing spearchuckers should be driving!” — they’d be crucified! But I saw a magazine ad a few years back advertising ATVs with the text “For the cracker on your Christmas list.” Hey, if I can’t use the N word, you can’t call me a cracker, okay?

  • James

    The term redneck is extremely insulting to me, both as a southerner and as a “hillbilly”. Rednecks are loud, obnoxious troublemakers commonly found throughout the united states. Redneck and trailer trash are interchangeable terms.

    Hillbillies are generally fairly peaceful simple folk, with high moral standards. I enjoy the better things in life but no matter what I do or where I am my heart will always be content sitting on my front porch in the hills of Kentucky, smoking my corncob pipe drinking sweet tea.

  • caleb

    I think that being called a redneck is a complement without some people knowing it. To me it means your a hard working man that will stand up for what you believe in (principals) and trust me when a redneck starts talking about principals theres no changing there minds thats something thats tought from brith. I am proud to be a redneck from southwest Virginia.

  • Jake

    I live in WI and up here we use the term Redneck even though we really are hicks. But in all honestly I use the term nigger around black people when they call me a Red neck or Hick in a negative way and its not a crime to me if im offended by what they are saying to me then I can say something offensive as well. Stick to your roots!

  • Eugene

    Yes, Jeff Foxworthy can get away it. Why? Call it the twinkle in the eye, commonality, or whatever since tone doesn’t translate, if at all, on paper. Now if someone were to come up to me, call me cracker, hillbilly, redneck, etc. it would be better if I detected a common dialect. We at least start off sort of peaceable. If both dialect and tone are wrong, life could become nasty.

    Cracker – from the crack of the stockman’s whip he carried to root out cattle in the pine barrens where a horse wouldn’t fit. Done that. We raised cattle.

    Hillbilly (bill hilly if you wish) – one who lives in the high country obviously. Usually associated with poverty or was before Ms Parton came to town. The reverse would be flatlander.

    Redneck – per my grandpappy a no-account either in brains or ability. Somebody call him one – oh, it just would not be good. The country music definition is good but a bit after his time.

  • venqax

    The first time I ever heard the term redneck it was in a big city in Ohio and used as a pejoritive term for Catholics– especially those of Irish extraction. It was used mostly by older people of my parents and grandparents generations. Nothing rural or southern or fundie Christian about it at all. Funny how these terms get around.

  • Anne

    I’ve heard people using the term red neck to mean a person who is self reliant, knows how to fix things, lives in the country, has a large garden plot behind his house, may have long hair, may be athiest, Christian, is independent thinking politically, doesn’t care much about dress, etc. I’ve heard long haired bikers referred to as redneck too. I would have thought of these people as hillbillies and would admire them.
    I came from wyoming originally but I don’t remember the term having been used while I was growing up there in the 70’s. The definition that I have come to know from living in a ski town in Colorado for 25 years is a man who drives a large new pickup truck, goes to church, looks down on those of different cultures and religions, sometimes even Italian Catholicism, wears wranglers and starched western shirt with boots, and large buckle, often lives in town or in a suburb, but wants a ranch may be college educated, has a certain attitude about women, speaks in a peculiarly rounded accent resembling Sarah Palin’s, is a Republican, tries to be very masculine. His wife tends to drive a surburban. Loves to spray weeds. I don’t remember spotting this genre of people before Gorge Bush Jr.
    I’m afraid this new generation has given a bad name to the older, more authentic rednecks.

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