On “white trash”

Lately i’ve been researching the origin of slurs directed towards white people in America because I had this suspicion that “white trash” originated as a slur for Irish-American settlers.

Not exactly, but close.

According to the interwebs, “white trash” was actually first used in the 1830s by slaves to describe indentured white servants and poor whites who did not own land. Though the Scotch-Irish were well established in the US at this time (Andrew Jackson was Scotch, as were many early landowning families because, like the Dutch and English, were a fairly early European immigration wave and had 50–100 years to build themselves up), most Irish who came here before An Gorta Mor in the 1840s-50s came here as indentured servants sent to English colonies. So many of the poor, landless whites or white servants who were being called “white trash” were absolutely Irish people who had been systematically kept poor by the English and were sent here to pay off debts. So though it doesn’t have a origin of being used specifically for Irish-americans, many of the people who were called “white trash” and are still referred to as such today are of Irish descent.

The word “Hillbilly” does have a history as a slur used against Celtic people. There’s a few theories about the origin of this word. The most popular is that it comes from Billy’s Boys, a term for the Ulster Scots who supported William II. But that doesn’t seem right — Billy’s Boys is a word from the 1730s whereas “hillbilly” dates to about 1898.

The other theory is that it’s a combination of scottish dialect and that “billy” meant “Friend.” This doesn’t seem right, i’ve been nose-deep in Scottish-gaelic dictionaries all evening. There is an irish word like this, “buachaill” (pronounced “bwe-chill” with a ch like in loch) and it means “boy-o” and is where the cockney word “bloke” comes from. The same word exists in Scottish-Gaelic, too — except it means cowherd. Which is what it meant in Old Irish, the language from which Scottish split. So maybe “Billy” is a massacre of “buachaill” as said by a scot? So hill-buachaill, farmer up in the hills??

Either way, “hillbilly” originated specifically in reference to white people in Appalachia and Ozarka, who were mostly Scotch, Irish, and An Lucht Siúil (the walking ppl aka “Travelers” or “Irish G*psies”).

Finally, redneck!! Most people think it comes from rural poor folks working outside and getting a sunburn on your neck, which is part of it, but the meaning is a little deeper. In Scotland, “rednecks” was a word for “Presbyterian” (dissenters of Scots bishops wore red cloths around their necks) and the Scotch people who predominate Appalachia were descendants of Scottish Presbyterian dissenters living in Ulster.

“Redneck” became more popular in the 20th century and is 100% connected to the red scarves worn by Ozarka coal miners in solidarity. It was used a pejorative for unionists, the working class, and for workers on strike.

So yeah. These words all have mixed and fascinating origins. Though none of them originated in explicit reference to those of Celtic origin, the intersection of class, regional demographics, and white immigrant identity in this country means that have been and still are predominantly used in reference to these populations.

Obviously none of these are comparable to slurs used against people of color who are viewed as subhuman in our culture and treated as such by many institutions in this country, but i still think their origins and class-intersections — especially the correlation between “REDneck” , unionists, and communism — are very interesting.

Hope u enjoyed this linguistic rant thank u bye