[Edith — I need a head for this that won’t get me in trouble.]
Dear Word Detective: My wife and I were discussing yesterday the history of the word “redneck.” As a Texan, I’ve heard this word all my life, and just assumed it had to do with people working in the sun all day. On a recent trip to Jackson, Mississippi, however, I was presented an alternate theory: the Old Capitol Museum there attributes the term to the red-tie wearing followers of an old politician there named Theodore G. Bilbo — the campaigners for Bilbo would wear white suits and red ties. My Mississipian grandfather recalls Bilbo being a rabid racist. A brief internet search revealed all kinds of other theories ranging from persecuted Presbyterians in Europe to coal miners in West Virginia. Please Word Detective, help me get in touch with my redneck heritage. — Shane.
Good question, and now I get to type the word “Mississippi” a few times, which is almost as much fun as spelling it out loud. It’s the only US state name that you can dance to.
First of all, I have to hand it to the folks at the Old Capitol Museum in Jackson for bringing up Theodore G. Bilbo (1877-1947) in their explanation of “redneck.” If I were in their shoes, I’d be strongly tempted to deny the guy ever existed. But Bilbo was indeed twice Governor of Mississippi, as well as a US Senator from that state for 17 years, and to call Bilbo, a longtime member of the Ku Klux Klan, a “rabid” racist is an understatement. In any case, it’s possible that Bilbo’s supporters wore red ties, but the term “redneck” first appeared in print in the 1830s, quite a while before Bilbo slithered onto the stage of history.
I, too, have heard the theory that the term “redneck” originally referred to 17th century Scottish Presbyterians who signed anti-Anglican proclamations in their own blood and wore red scarves or kerchiefs to signal their beliefs. According to this theory, their descendants eventually settled in the Appalachian region of the US and came to be known as “rednecks” because of those scarves. It is true, of course, that Appalachia was largely settled by Scottish and Irish immigrants. But the fact that the term “redneck” was apparently never applied to the Presbyterians while they were still in Scotland and actually wearing the scarves poses a problem for this theory.
Various struggles by coal miners in Appalachia for the right to unionize also are said to have involved red neckwear, but this theory lacks any actual evidence connecting these struggles to “redneck.”
The accepted theory among linguists about “redneck” is the one you’ve deduced on your own: that the term was applied to poor white Southerners because long hours working in the fields caused a permanent sunburn on the back of their necks. But there may be more to it than that. The term “redneck” first became truly widespread during the Great Depression of the 1930s, when food was scarce in the rural South, and many poor people subsisted on a diet composed largely of pork fat and hominy grits (made from corn). Such a diet is lacking in niacin, and severe niacin deficiency produces a disease called “pellagra,” one of the symptoms of which is a striking reddening of the skin. Pellagra was endemic to the American South during the Depression, and since sunlight worsens the dermatitis produced by the disease, the sunburned necks of poor white agricultural workers would have been even more noticeable, perhaps increasing the popularity of the term “redneck.”