Saturday, November 18, 2017

Hillbillies vs. Rednecks: What’s the Difference?

One winter in Chamonix, a gaggle of Canadians and a Kiwi moved into the apartment next door to mine. They threw a lot of parties, as one does when one is young and living in the literal mother of all ski towns. Once, I was at one of those parties, and someone on the other side of the room shouted, “Hey, redneck!”

I turned around and shouted, “What?”

Everyone laughed because, to my surprise, they weren’t talking to me.

I grew up in West Virginia, where a lot of people I know use the terms redneck and hillbilly interchangeably. But I’m here to tell you that there’s a difference.

I once watched a program on The History Channel (I think) that characterized rednecks as country people from the coastal plains of the American Southeast, and hillbillies as the descendants of Irish, Scots-Irish, German, Italian, and Swiss immigrants who settled in Appalachia. See, you have to be bred in Appalachia to be a hillbilly; you have to be from the hills, it’s right in the name. It’s really nothing to do with your lifestyle or beliefs or political leanings or level of education or whether or not you wear shoes. It’s an ethnic term, sort of.

A stereotypical redneck is a white person from the rural American South; there’s some debate as to the origin of the term, which I’ve discussed before. It may have originally referred to poor whites who worked outside in the sun, but I know someone (and I have a good idea who) is going to jump up in here to point out that it actually refers to unionized coal miners who wore red bandanas around their necks to identify themselves during the West Virginia Mine Wars.

These days, the word redneck has evolved, as words tend to do, to mean any country person, or even any person who identifies with traditionally rural values, or enjoys traditionally rural activities, or even just thinks they would, because it turns out you don’t have to live in the country to be a redneck. You can be a redneck and live in the city, especially if it’s a Southern city like Atlanta or Houston. You don’t even have to be American. I spent a couple of weeks in Finland several years ago, and the people I met there were enormous rednecks. When I told them this, they swelled with pride, which is a key requirement.