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American Speech 76.4 (2001) 434-437

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Redneck: A New Discovery

Patrick Huber and Kathleen Drowne, University of Missouri-Rolla

Political elections in the United States have long helped to shape the American language, as anyone who now knows the difference between a hanging chad and a dimpled chad can testify. 1 Campaign mud slinging in particular has unexpectedly transformed the meanings of several of our popular epithets, especially wool hat and redneck. Wool hat originated shortly after the American Revolution to describe "a yokel or rustic" (DAHP 1951). This derisive term, however, did not gain political currency until the 1830s, when members of the Whig Party, in an effort to discredit their opponents, employed the term to ridicule the Democrats' constituency of small merchants, yeoman farmers, and immigrant workers. In 1830, for example, a Philadelphia newspaper lampooned President Andrew Jackson's supporters by characterizing them as "the rowdies, the wool hats, the filthy mechanics, &c." (DAHP).

Wool hat resurfaced during the Populist movement of the late nineteenth century, primarily in South Carolina and Georgia, where, according to historian Barton C. Shaw (1984), farmers adopted the term as "an emblem of pride" (1) to describe their own political allegiances. "The hard-fisted yeomanry have a voice," proclaimed a South Carolina populist in 1882. "The 'wool-hat' crowd are in a majority and they are opposed to class and monopoly" (emphasis in original; Ford 1984, 313). During the first half of the twentieth century, small farmers and textile workers who supported Southern demagogues Benjamin R. "Pitchfork Ben" Tillman and Eugene Talmadge also proudly identified themselves as "wool hats" and "wool hat boys" (Huber 1992, 117).

Southern politics has also shaped the history of the word redneck. According to the OED2 (1989), the first definitive example of redneck to describe rural white laborers of the American South dates to 1893: "Red-neck . . . [is] a name applied by the better class of people to the poorer inhabitants of the rural districts" (Shands 1893, 53). 2 But during the 1890s, redneck also entered the political discourse of Mississippi when Democrats used it to denigrate farmers within their party who supported populist reforms (Ferguson 1952, 519). [End Page 434]

Recently, we uncovered an even earlier citation of redneck, used in a political context, buried in the pages of the Pontotoc Democrat. In 1891, Pontotoc, a small up-country town in northern Mississippi (approximately 20 miles west of Tupelo), was the scene of a hotly contested election for state representative. By then, many of the state's small planters and landholding farmers within the Democratic Party had joined the Southern Farmers' Alliance, an organization that supported railroad regulation, banking and currency reforms, and other political measures designed to provide relief to beleaguered farmers. Across Mississippi, Alliance members were trying to wrest political control from Bourbon Democrats, mostly wealthy Delta planters and business leaders, who dominated the state's Democratic Party (Kirwan 1951, 85-102).

On 13 August 1891, an unknown writer urged rural residents to vote in the upcoming election for state representative by publishing the following notice in the Pontotoc Democrat. His declaration also served as a warning to Bourbon Democrats that underrepresented farmers in the district would soon make themselves heard:

Primary on the 25th.
And the "rednecks" will be there.
And the "Yaller-heels" will be there, also.
And the "hayseeds" and "gray dillers," they'll be there, too.

And the "subordinates" and "subalterns" will be there to rebuke their slanderers and traducers.

And the men who pay ten, twenty, thirty, etc. etc. per cent on borrowed money will be on hand, and they'll remember it, too.

And they'll vote for their principles, and their wives and children on that day.

For on that day they'll vote for the men who will stand by [Frank] Burkitt, [Ethelbert] Barksdale, subtreasury and all.

The writer employed several slurs commonly used by Bourbon Democrats to disparage reform-minded farmers, including redneck and hayseed (Ferguson 1952, 519). His use of quotation marks around these words, however, strongly suggests his deliberate manipulation...