The word ‘Hillbilly': Linguistic Mystery and Popular Culture Fixture

Posted by | March 5, 2012

Please welcome guest author Julie Baxter. Baxter is a London based freelance writer with a passion for both history and language. She generally writes copy on behalf of a number of clients in the personal finance sector, including a credit card transfer service in the UK.

Whether you embrace the word proudly or decry it as a derogatory epithet, the term and stereotype of the Hillbilly is one that is cemented in American collective consciousness and history. Stereotypes show hillbillies poor, in dirty clothing, and often ignorant, eating roadkill and scraps from garbage cans. This image is largely unfair.

Interestingly, there is some debate as to the origin of the term itself, many believing it to be derived from the term “Billy Boys,” which was a name given to Scottish followers of King William III.

Ber-Mil sales card from the 1950s.

Ber-Mil sales card from the 1950s.

The theory goes that Scottish and Ulster-Scottish (Scots-Irish) people, the Scottish Lowland and Ulster Presbyterians who immigrated en masse to America during the 1700’s, brought their traditional music with them to the new world. Many of their songs and ballads dealt with William, Prince of Orange, who defeated the Catholic King James II of the Stuart family at the Battle of the Boyne, Ireland in 1690.

However, Michael Montgomery, in From Ulster to America: The Scotch-Irish Heritage of American English, writes: “In Ulster in recent years it has sometimes been supposed that it was coined to refer to followers of King William III and brought to America by early Ulster emmigrants…, but this derivation is almost certainly incorrect… In America hillbilly was first attested only in 1898, which suggests a later, independent development.”

This etymology is probably in the realm of what linguists call “folk etymology,” meaning in this case that it’s a wonderful story, but something more simplistic is probably true. Anthony Harkins, in Hillbilly: A Cultural History of an American Icon, agrees. He states that the most credible theory of the term’s origin is that it derives from the linkage of two older Scottish expressions, “hill-folk” and “billie” which was a synonym for “fellow,” similar to “guy” or “bloke.”

Ber-Mil sales card from the 1950s.

Ber-Mil sales card from the 1950s.

The Scotch-Irish who moved into the Appalachian mountain ranges and the Ozarks would eventually become famous for maintaining their tightly knit, clannish social structure. Friction between the clans, who sometimes clashed, was not forgotten and grew into feuds that lasted for years. It’s from these remote, hot-tempered Appalachian and Ozark residents that the hillbilly stereotype earned its early characteristics.

Early Usage

Early written references to the hillbilly include the following, meaning a southern Appalachian resident: “Then again, I do not think it will do so well. I would hate to see some old railroad man come here and take my job, and then, I don’t think It is right to hire some Hill Billy and give him the same right as I just because he was hired the same time I was.” -The Railroad Trainmen’s Journal, July 1892
“In short, a Hill-Billie is a free and untrammeled white citizen of Alabama, who lives in the hills, has no means to speak of, dresses as he can, talks as he pleases, drinks whiskey when he gets it, and fires of his revolver as the fancy takes him.” -New York Journal, April 1900

Rise to Fame

The term hillbilly later came to characterize a type of folk music, largely owing to the attention, popularity, and subsequent commercialization of the hillbilly stereotype. Named ironically after a New York businessman, ‘Rex Cole’s Mountaineers’ was a band that capitalized on it. The group is partly to thank for the exploitation of the hillbilly stereotype as backwoods bumpkins. Later, the likes of the “Lil’Abner” comic strip and the long-running TV series, “The Beverly Hillbillies” continued to make a mockery, if a gentle one in the case of the “Beverly Hillbillies” TV series, and continued to make money from the often unfair generalizations.

Postcard printed in Cranesville PA, dated 1916.

Postcard printed in Cranesville PA, dated 1916.

Many people aren’t aware of what a force of popular culture the “hillbilly” mold became in the 1920s. The creator of the Grand Ole Opry, George Hay, recast many of its early stars as with a backwoods persona. Dr. Bate & his Augmented Orchestra became The Possum Hunters, and the Binkley Brothers became The Dixie Clodhoppers. Opry stars who had formerly dressed fashionably in a suit and tie, instead appeared in overalls and plaid shirts, many holding a jug.

In the late 1920s, Beverly Hills radio station manger Glen Rice assembled his own hillbilly act, concocting an elaborate tale of stumbling onto a gaggle of out-of-touch Arkansas exiles. In fact, Rice recruited professional musicians and actors from Hollywood, and had given them character names such as “Ol’ Jad”. Rice’s Beverly Hillbillies made their radio debut in 1930 and became very successful thereafter.

Usage of the word spread, and “hillbilly” was firmly ensconced in common American parlance and culture by the 1950s. This was not without a bit of esoteric pride on the part of many residents. The Springfield, Missouri Chamber of Commerce once presented visiting dignitaries with an “Ozark Hillbilly Medallion” In fact, President Harry S. Truman was one such recipient in 1952.

Present Day

Country music acts largely now prefer not to label themselves as “hillbillies,” but the term is still alive and well today. Hillbilly Days is an annual festival, the second largest festival held in Kentucky. Held in April, it celebrates the best of Appalachian culture and is sometimes referred to as the “Mardi Gras of the Mountains.”

It’s fair to say, then, that these Scottish immigrants made an impression. The force of their tenacity and loyalty and ancestral family ways developed into a character that grew to be famous, and will continue to be so, throughout the world.

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