The release earlier this month of “Hillbilly Elegy,” director Ron Howard’s movie for Netflix based on author J.D. Vance’s bestselling autobiography of the same name, prompts this friendly reminder that “hillbilly” is a slur and it pays to be careful how you toss the word around.
It “was originally a derogatory term,” said a Roanoke (Virginia) Times editorial in 2018. “The first printed references to the word appeared in the 1890s. In 1900, the New York Journal described the term this way: ‘A Hill-Billie is a free and untrammeled white citizen of Tennessee, 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 off his revolver as the fancy takes him.’ None of that was meant as a compliment.”
For many, the word is shorthand for an ignorant, backward and unrefined rural person but, as the same editorial noted, “hillbilly” doesn’t pack the same punch as the more toxic racial and ethnic slurs that we need not mention. In Appalachia and among Appalachians, it’s sometimes used “in a neutral or even positive way. In the early days, country music was promoted as ‘hillbilly’ music and, when it ran up against rock’n’roll, the last part of the word became part of a new genre called ‘rockabilly.’ Elvis Presley was called for a time ‘the Hillbilly Cat,’” said the editorial. “Just over the state line, Pikeville, Kentucky, hosts an annual festival called ‘Hillbilly Days.’”
What about “The Beverly Hillbillies,” the TV sitcom that ran from 1962 to 1971 and made loving sport of the nouveau riche hill folk transplanted into a wealthy California enclave? Well, those were less enlightened times. When CBS announced a reality-based reboot titled “The Real Beverly Hillbillies” in 2002, the network was shamed out of it by an anti-defamation campaign led by The Center for Rural Strategies, an advocacy group in Whitesburg, Kentucky.
“The brass at CBS clearly think it’s safe to make fun of and commercialize low-income rural folks,” said the center in a news release at the time.
Author Vance, who grew up poor in a fractured, troubled family in southwestern Ohio, is entitled to use “hillbilly” affectionately, descriptively or however he sees fit in accordance with the unwritten rules of in-group slang.
But the Roanoke Times was unequivocal: “Someone who is not from a rural background should abstain from using the H-word to describe people who are.”