Picture of Larry the Cable Guy
Picture of Larry the Cable Guy (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I've always been interested in how people can assign such vastly different meanings to words and then experience impaired communication because neither understands that the other party is using a word in a different sense than they are. It seems like an awful lot of misunderstandings and conflict could be avoided if we would take the time to make sure we understood what the other party was saying before angrily attacking.

When you hear the label redneck, what comes to mind? What is a redneck? Who deserves the label, and who does not? I suspect that the meaning of this word varies widely by where you live, your age, and a host of other factors. As far as I know, it is not used much outside the U.S. But even here in the U.S, I'd think that the meaning likely varies across region. For example, the image of a redneck in West Virginia is probably quite different from those in Louisiana or California. I know many people consider redneck a pejorative term, but I have known many people over the years who proudly referred to themselves as rednecks.

I spent the bulk of my formative years in a relatively small town surrounded by people who were often called rednecks, many of whom also referred to themselves as rednecks. When I think back to some of the attributes they shared, the following occur to me:

  • Relatively uneducated and not particularly interested in intellectual pursuits
  • Employed in blue collar jobs, usually working with their hands and often outdoors
  • Impressive mechanical abilities and knowledge of the outdoors
  • Fiercely patriotic but not usually in the healthy way
  • Politically conservative
  • Hardworking
  • Loved hunting and fishing
  • Held traditional gender roles attitudes (e.g., women as subservient to men)
  • Often bigoted against racial and ethnic minorities, LGBT persons, and atheists
  • Generally open about what they thought and trustworthy
  • Proudly Christian but not necessarily fundamentalist
  • Extremely independent and self-sufficient

Just because these are the first things that come to mind now when I think back does not mean they provide a useful definition. After all, I knew people who had many of these characteristics who I never regarded as rednecks and some who had relatively few of them and I still thought of as rednecks. I also recognize that many of you would probably come up with very different lists.

The question of whether redneck is a pejorative label is a tough one. I'm inclined to say that it is but barely. Some of the things on the list above are negative; others are positive. I have had quite a few friends over the years who considered themselves rednecks, and I always found much to admire about them even if there were some things that annoyed me. I'd also say that redneck has become less pejorative over the years. This makes me wonder if other terms (e.g., atheist) might eventually do the same.