Podunk Pete muses about the term 'redneck'

Published 12:00 am Friday, December 16, 2011

By Peter Zimmerman
For The Salisbury Post
The other day at the drugstore, a complete stranger walked over and told me I looked like a redneck, maybe because my beard was untrimmed and I was wearing a plaid lumberjack shirt. “Being a redneck,” she added tactfully, “isn’t necessarily a bad thing.” Her assessment doesn’t jibe with most dictionaries, which define a redneck as a poor white Southern laborer, mostly male, and often narrow-minded or even bigoted.
But this is simply untrue. First off, rednecks live everywhere, not just south of the Mason-Dixon line. For instance, my friend’s stepdad John Duboice, a hay farmer in Pleasant Valley, New York, says rednecks are simply folks who believe in standing up for traditional values. “I’d rather be in a room full of rednecks than a room full of liberals,” he quips. “I might not feel as safe but I’d have more fun.”
Kathy Chaffin, a reporter I used to work with, is uniquely qualified to address the subject of what makes a redneck a redneck. For generations, Kathy’s kin have grown tobacco on a 40-acre farm in rural Davie County, North Carolina. In her mind, rednecks drive tractors and chew either gum or tobacco in order to stay awake while they’re driving down the rows. More than likely they augment their income – as her father did – by working the night shift at the local textile mill.
More than anything, she said, rednecks are proud to be working-class, proud to be from the country, and regardless of what people might think, proud to be rednecks.
When rednecks call each other rednecks, they mean it in the positive sense – like “bad dude” means a good guy. North Carolina State linguistics professor Wolf Wolfram calls this phenomenon “semantic inversion.”
The word “redneck” also applies to a Union sympathizer, a Presbyterian or a Roman Catholic, a person of mixed race, and last but not least, a canvasback duck.
Like the lady in the drugstore says, being a redneck isn’t necessarily a bad thing.