Appalachian Thursday – Reclaiming “Hillbilly”
There’s been some talk lately about how hillbilly is a derogatory word that shouldn’t see the light of day. So I’m going on the record to say I not only don’t mind the word, but that I think we should reclaim it.
Consider the word’s origin (or etymology if you prefer): hill + Billy. So basically, taking a really common name for a person and linking it to hilly terrain. I know–I was hoping for something more highfalutin.
Here are two of the earliest known uses of the word in print:
“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, 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 23, 1900
That second one actually makes hillbilly-ness sound pretty appealing–or at least free-wheeling. But derogatory? Well, I guess that depends on who you are and how you mean it.
Pretty much any word can become derogatory–I’ve certainly heard folks use the word “Yankee” in a way that didn’t convey admiration. But if you visit Hillbilly Hot Dogs in Lesage, WV, I think they’d tell you that word–and it’s stereotypical connotations–have worked out just fine for them.
I don’t mind it a bit if someone suggests that being from a farm in West Virginia makes me a hillbilly (maybe I’m a hillbetty). I’m proud of the place I grew up and the people who shaped me. Sure, there are problems–just like everywhere else. But there are also plenty of amazing stories of people overcoming, sticking it out, and staying true to their heritage.
So I say let’s ignore those folks who think hillbilly is a dirty word and reclaim it. In my book a hillbilly is someone who loves the hills and hollers of Appalachia; someone who has some knowledge of living off the land; who holds family close; who will step up to help a neighbor in need; is a creative problem-solver (do a search for hillbilly air conditioner); who knows how to laugh and makes a habit of doing so often; who plays hard, eats hearty, and loves deeply.
In short–some of my very favorite people in this whole world.