A redneck is a white, working class US southerner, often with provincial and insular attitudes. It is most likely a reference to the sun-burned necks of those who work in the fields all day. But it could be a reference to either anger or pellagra, which can both turn the neck red.

Use of redneck dates to 1830. From Anne Royall’s Mrs. Royall’s Southern Tour of that year:

This may be ascribed to the Red Necks, a name bestowed upon the Presbyterians in Fayetteville.

The “Presbyterians” in the quote are probably poor, Scotch-Irish farmers. By the 1890s, the term was in widespread use. From the 13 August 1891 Pontotoc Democrat (Mississippi):

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 from Hubert Shands’ 1893 Some Peculiarities of Speech in Mississippi:

Red-neck,...a name applied by the better class of people to the poorer inhabitants of the rural districts.

Thousands of miles from the American south, the Afrikaans Rooinek, which literally means redneck, is a term the Boers applied to the British. Originally disparaging, it is often applied somewhat affectionately and even used among British immigrants to South Africa to refer to themselves. The similarity is probably due to multiple coinages, sun-burned necks in hot climates are common, rather than lexical borrowing between the southern US dialect and Afrikaans. Douglas Blackburn, writing under the pen name Sarel Erasmus, wrote the 1890 Prinsloo of Prinsloosdorp:

One morning he was on the market with his waggon when two men—English Rooineks—came and said: “Piet, do you want to make £15?”

The term is explained in Lambert H. Brinkman’s The Glory of the Backveld from 1924:

The word “rooinek” (red-neck) is an epithet for “Englishman,” due to the fact that, as a rule, an Englishman coming to South Africa, and unaccustomed to the hot, glaring sunshine, burns red in face, neck and hands. When a Boer addresses an Englishman by the epithet it is a sure sign that he is well disposed towards him and counts him as a friend, otherwise he would take no such liberties.

There is also a tale in which it referred to striking coal miners who wore red bandannas as a means of group identification. Given what we do know of the origin of the word, this explanation can be safely discounted.

(Sources: Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd Edition; Dictionary of South African English; American Speech, Vol. 76, No. 4, Winter 2001)

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