A land of sunburnt proles

What will Der Spiegel’s German readers make of Kevin Rudd’s dispute with comedian Robin Williams? In an interview with David Letterman Williams jokingly said that Australians were "basically English rednecks". And in a later radio interview the PM hit back (video). But the Germans don’t have a word for ‘rednecks.’ So in Der Spiegel, Williams is calling us proleten or ‘proles’ — a word that doesn’t have quite the same connotations. Even native English speakers can run into this kind of problem with slang terms. Try explaining what Williams meant without using the word ‘rednecks’.

Is it about class?

Proleten can be translated as ‘peasants’ or ‘proletarians’. So in a strict dictionary sense it’s about social class. And that captures at least part of the meaning of the American word ‘redneck’. For example, in his 1893 book Some peculiarities of speech in Mississippi, Hubert Shands wrote:

Red-neck (red-nek). A name applied by the better class of people to the poorer inhabitants of the rural districts. The word explains itself : men who work in the field, as a matter of course, generally have their skin burned red by the sun, and especially is this true of the back of their necks.

But if that was all there was to say about the meaning of ‘redneck’ it would be odd for the PM to object. After all, Rudd makes no secret of his own working class, rural origins. As a child he grew up on a share farm in rural Queensland. He told Julia Baird that he didn’t recall wearing shoes too often. When he was 11 his father died as the result of a car accident and the family was evicted from their home. He remembers that "being evicted actually was the harder bit because we were share farmers, we didn’t own the property so bury Dad one day and get tossed off the property virtually the next with nowhere to go and no assets because you don’t own a house if you’re a share farmer either."


It’s hard to have a blazingly red neck unless you’re white. According to Merriam Webster’s, a ‘redneck is "a white member of the Southern rural laboring class". The stereotypical redneck has English, Scottish or Irish ancestors. Although poor and often landless, rednecks are members of the dominant ethnic group.

In his book on speech in Mississippi, Shands lists another term for poor whites:

Po’ white trash. The common name given by the negro to poor white people, whom he holds in utter scorn and detestation. Members of the colored race have frequently said to me : "Dem po’ white trash don’t know how to treat we niggers, and we all hates ’em like snakes."

Not only does this hint at the racism of poor whites in the American South, but it suggests that even those at the bottom of America’s status hierarchy saw the poorest whites as worthless. In 1833, Frances Butler wrote in her journal:

In the south there are no servants but blacks ; for the greater proportion of domestics being slaves, all species of servitude whatever is looked upon as a degradation ; and the slaves themselves entertain the very highest contempt for white servants, whom they designate as "poor white trash."

Despite the advantages of race and ethnicity, these poor whites had failed to get ahead. And this is an enduring part of the redneck stereotype. While prejudice might hold back blacks and recent migrants, the rednecks are seen as having no excuse for their low status. Their poverty is seen as entirely their own fault.

A culture of poverty?

The MacMillan Dictionary defines redneck as "a working-class white person from the southern US, especially one who is not educated and does not like people who are not white". According to the stereotype, lack of education is the chief reason rednecks remain poor.

Not only are rednecks seen as lacking in education, but they are seen as not placing any value on it. They live in a ‘culture of poverty’ where disadvantage is passed on from parents to children. In the 1950s, Northern cities like Detroit and Chicago saw a wave of immigrants from the South. Less educated Southern whites were often called ‘hillbillies’ (although strictly speaking, the term ‘hillbilly’ is restricted to those who come from mountainous areas like the Appalachians and Ozarks). Writing in Harpers Magazine in 1958, Albert Votaw described the living conditions of hillbilly migrants in Chicago:

Settling in deteriorating neighborhoods where they can stick with their own kind, they live as much as they can the way they lived back home. Often removing window screens, they sit half-dressed where it is cooler, and dispose of garbage the quickest way. Their own dress is casual and their children’s worse. Their housekeeping is easy to the point of disorder, and they congregate in the evening on front porches and steps, where they find time for the sort of motionless relaxation that infuriates bustling city people.

Their children play freely anywhere, without supervision. Fences and hedges break down; lawns go back to dirt. On the crowded city streets, children are unsafe, and their parents seem oblivious. Even more, when it comes to sex training, their habits — with respect to such matters as incest and statutory rape — are clearly at variance with urban legal requirements, and parents fail to appreciate the interest authorities take in their sex life.

Negative attitudes to poor Southern migrants were common in big American cities. West Virginian bluegrass musician Hazel Dickens arrived in Baltimore in the 1950s: "I remember people like me walking up and down the street looking for apartments", she says, "I saw one sign that said, NO DOGS OR HILLBILLIES."


In his 1968 book The New Language of Politics, William Safire defines a ‘redneck’ as: "A bigoted rural white, especially Southern; used as an attack word on all Southern conservatives or segregationists" (p 561). He explains that the label is "descriptive of what the speaker thinks is ignorant, rustic, anti-Negro, and anti-Northerner."

Redneck chic

As early as 1891 poor rural whites were taking back the derogatory label ‘redneck’ and wearing it with pride. The post-civil war South saw a rift between poor ‘rednecks’ wealthy ‘bourbons‘ on the issue of the franchise. Bourbon Democrats sought to disenfranchise black and poor white voters through property tests, literacy tests and poll taxes. Populists fought back. A letter published in the Pontotoc Democrat on August 13 urges rural whites to vote in an upcoming state election (pdf):

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.

In the same way, today some of the South’s rural poor and their descendants are proud of being rednecks. They see it as a lifestyle choice and emphasise the label’s connotations of poverty rather than those of racism. For example, country music singer Gretchen Wilson grew up in a trailer park and dropped out of school when she was 15. In 2004 she had a hit with an ode to the redneck life — ‘Redneck Woman‘:

Victoria’s Secret
Well their stuff’s real nice
Oh but I can buy the same damn thing on a Wal*Mart shelf half price

As Wilson tells it, being a redneck is about "knowing how to live with what you have, not worrying about having what you don’t have." Comedian Jeff Foxworthy agrees:

There’s a whole segment of the population with a mentality that bases good times on where they can go and what they can buy … You’ve got another segment that’s a lot bigger (whose) priorities are more about friends and families and what they can do to have some fun, based on 1 limited budget.

For a long time, because it goes against the message that the advertising world sends to you, they were ashamed they didn’t have the coolest clothes, the coolest cars, couldn’t afford to go here, buy this and do that. I think we finally all got together and went, ‘You know what? We like being this way.’

New York state born singer John Karl styles himself as a "Yankee redneck". In his song ‘Redneck Rich Hillbilly Happy‘ he sings about being "Dirt poor proud" and brags that "we ain’t got much but we got enough". For some Americans being a redneck means embracing a lifestyle where money and education don’t matter as much as friends, family and whoopin’ it up on Saturday night (video).

And maybe this is the sense of the word Robin Williams had in mind when he used the term. Responding to Kevin Rudd’s comments he said: "Mr Rudd I apologise it’s linguistics I would like to modify my terminology and say English Good Old Boy." (He also mentioned that he’d love to visit a strip club with the PM.)

As for accusations of racism, most of today’s self-styled rednecks deny that bigotry has anything to do with their identity. "I’ve never associated being a redneck with racism", says Gretchen Wilson, but goes on to concede that some of the older generation were a bit "ignorant". From this point of view, hostility towards rednecks and their way of life is interpreted as snobbery. It’s about more educated, better off people looking down on those who don’t share their ambitions and pretensions. And as UC Berkeley linguist Nunberg suggests, this is why the label is so attractive to conservatives who portray their opponents as snooty members of an over-educated, urban elite.

As in the 19th century, politicians continue to appeal to Southerners by reminding them that their political opponents think of them as rednecks. According to Nunberg:

… modern conservatives never tire of contrasting their own solidarity with Southerners and rural Americans with the disdain that liberals have for them. In fact the word redneck is about twenty times more likely to appear in the pages of conservative publications like National Review than in the Nation or the American Prospect, chiefly because conservatives are fond of setting the word in the mouths of imaginary left-wing elitists in the course of reminding the good people of the heartland how much contempt liberals have for them (p 81-82).

Today’s liberals typically emphasise education and healthy living. But the redneck lifestyle is defiantly lower class. It’s about drinking and smoking and eating large quantities of fried and barbecued food. And TV, rather than books or newspapers, is the medium of choice.

German rednecks?

Although German has no direct counterpart for ‘redneck’, Der Spiegel’s readers also worry about their lower classes — the proleten and Hinterwäldlern. In an article titled ‘Die neuen Proleten‘ (‘The new Proletarians’), Gabor Steingart argues that the ‘new proletarians’ or ‘underclass’ are deprived because of their behaviour rather than their lack of income:

… what stand out are the symptoms of intellectual neglect. The poor of today watch television for half the day. These days, television producers even refer to what they call "Underclass TV." The new proletariat eats a lot of fatty foods and he enjoys smoking and drinking — a lot. About 8 percent of Germans consume 40 percent of all the alcohol sold in the country. While he may be a family man, his families are often broken. And on Election Day, he casts a protest vote for the extreme left or right wing party, sometimes switching quickly from one to the other.

But the main thing that sets the modern poor apart from the industrial age pauper is a sheer lack of interest in education. Today’s proletariat has little education and no interest in obtaining more. Back in the early days of industrialization, the poor joined worker associations that often doubled as educational associations. The modern member of the underclass, by contrast, has completely shunned personal betterment.

He likewise makes little effort to open the door to the future for his own children. Their language skills are as bad as their ability to concentrate. The rising rate of illiteracy is matched by the shrinking opportunities to integrate the underclass. The Americans, not ones to mince words, call them "white trash."

Even in the German language text of this article "white trash" is written as "white trash". Steingart’s account of the ‘new proletariat’ has a similar tone to Albert Votaw’s account of Chicago’s hillbillies. Neither writer seems at all worried about offending the people they are writing about.

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James Farrell
14 years ago

German has no direct counterpart for ‘redneck’…

Well, why should they? Nor do Australians, for that matter — if you go by Safire’s definition, which is a pretty serviceable one. Therefore we just say rednecks, if we’re talking about the USA. On the other hand, if the story is Australian we might say rednecks but we might equally say bogans or even yobbos, depending on the context. I suspect the situation with Germans would generally be the same, and here’s one data point.

Proleten may be near enough to what Williams was getting at — he may not have meant to emphasise the racist aspect. Do you know exactly what it connotes or are you guessing?

Gummo Trotsky
Gummo Trotsky
14 years ago

Sorry Don, but I think you’ve allowed yourself to get drawn into a very silly – and unproductive – controversy.

Quick historical recap: US comedian (Robin Williams) describes Australians as “English rednecks” on a television show produced in the US for US Audiences. Austrailian Prime Minister is told about it, makes complete fool of himself.

And that’s that. If Kevin Rudd had shown the good sense to refrain from commenting on Robin Williams’ remarks, thsi wouldn’t be a news story in Germany – or anywhere else. There’s d be no issues of translation to consider. And I wouldn’t be sitting here, thinking about the “Hey Hey It’s Saturday” black face incident thinking “Y’know, when you thinl about it, Robin Williams might have a valid point.”

Stephen Bounds
Stephen Bounds
14 years ago

It’s never a good idea to take offence at a comedian, since you generally just prove their point for them.

But Kevin Rudd’s choice to take on one of the quickest-witted and most globally politically literate comedians of the past 100 years was never going to end well :)

Gummo Trotsky
Gummo Trotsky
14 years ago


There’s an explanation for my comment of last night here.

Nicholas Gruen
14 years ago

James, I think of the expression ‘redneck’ as also Australian (though obviously its provenance is American.) We use the word and so it’s ours too. The Germans don’t.

Gummo Trotsky
Gummo Trotsky
14 years ago

“Comedian makes cheap slight at our expense? K-Rudd is ready for a rap battle, yo.”

Yo’ man, who you wanna diss more? You wanna diss Robin Williams fo dissin yo country or you wanna diss Rudd for dissin’ Williams? Make up yo mind bro.

Gummo Trotsky
Gummo Trotsky
14 years ago

I doubt that any of Rudd’s friends have been telling him that he’s a witty sort lately. If they do, maybe they should qualify their advice a little and start saying “Look Kev, we think you’re witty but there are a lot of people out there who don’t know you and your style of humour like we do and a lot of them just aren’t going to get it”.

James A
James A
14 years ago

He doesn’t need a blog, he’s got journalists to convey his every brainfart to the public.

“Only wimps use tape backupblogs: real men just upload their important stuff on ftpmake comments to journalists, and let the rest of the world mirrorreport it ;)”

Gummo Trotsky
Gummo Trotsky
14 years ago

He doesn’t need a blog, he’s got journalists to convey his every brainfart to the public.

Nah – that’s his press secretary’s job. The journalists’ job is to read the press releases, have brainfarts of their own, then convey those to the public.

Apologies to all those who already know this from Journalism 101.

14 years ago

Redneck to German?

Well, all I know is what Rommel called my uncle when he was at Tobruk manfully swatting down Stukas.
Erwin called Uncle Tom “ein Arsch mit Ohren”.
Apparently it was also a semi-affectionate term for his own people and since most of the fellows there usually came home with sunburn and sand rash I thought it important to let everyone know.
BTW – There’s also –
Rote Fuchs – Red Fox
Rote Nase – as in Rudolph the red nosed
Alte Mann – if you’re about 10 yo.
Junge – if you’ve made 95.

14 years ago

Rooinek South African Boer = Dutch = hard outdoors worker etymology
Forgive me for adding more comment below an article that must have taken the author a fair while to compile.
I suggest he deserves some credit. Meanwhile he might appreciate my ideas about the etymology of redneck.

Unfortunately the author gave no mention to the Boers in South Africa and their term – “Rooinek” (literally red-neck) they were proud to call themselves at times with a fair variety of meaning.
Essentially the term means a small acre land owner who does work his own fields – and probably has come to be erroneously associated with his consequently sunburned red neck.
Perhaps the song should go – “Mad dogs, Boers and Englishmen out in the midday sun!”

Now if we look back to the history of Europe – for quite some centuries there was a readily identifiable set of ‘rednecks’ who had such influence that they transformed the face of the landscape and most definitely would have remained within the race memory.
For many years each retired veteran of the army of Rome was allotted a plot of land out in the provinces. A reasonable way of consolidating the Pax Romana.
An item of kit was a red cloth scarf – issued to keep the sun off the legionnaire’s neck and to limit chafing from his armour.
It is easy to see that a soldier recently become farmer would continue to wear his red scarf both as protection from the elements and as an indicator of his proud status.
Without a doubt the first sight of that scarf would have carried a message to any riever – ‘even if I mess with this bloke and get away with it his mates’ll soon catch up with me and then I’ll be dead meat.’
From memory the Emperor Augustus originated the initiative.

I submit Imperial Rome was the origin of the ‘Redneck’ sentiment – carried through the race memory of old Europe (including 500 years of Roman occupation of Britain) and thereafter transported into North America with European settlement.

I’d quietly suggest to the reader that they might enjoy reading Larry Mc Murtry’s ‘Texasville’.
The Texan lifestyle until recently was as close as you could get to the ancient Roman provinces.
Almost universal arms carriage, the death penalty in force, localise and politicised law enforcement and small government.

Anyway Mc Murtry’s judgement seemed to draw the line between redneck and white trash by defining it by how many too many lines of coke the individual snorted and consequently what sort of fool he’s made of himself.

It may be the opinion of some that by that standard that Mr Williams has fallen into the white trash category himself.

14 years ago

BUNSEN, I’d like to thank you for your excellent research and seek to add a few words of my own. For those who enjoy the word “bogan”, there’s a good summary paragraph on Wikipedia:

Similar concepts exist under other names in other countries, such as chav, scally or pikey (England), ned (Scotland), scanger and spide (Ireland), tokkie (Holland), Proll (Germany) and white trash, redneck, hick, hillbilly (North America), or baianão (Brazil).

Quite a decent “see also” list is provided so everyone knows who to look down upon, right the way round the world. However, Wikipedia fails to clearly draw distinction between suburbanites and rural dwellers… I believe that the word “redneck” has an important rural aspect to it.

Most countries have a warm region, primarily agricultural, removed from the political and economic center of power, and contains people of less sophisticated education who, need to suffer the indignity of working for a living using muscle and bone. In Australia we look down upon Queenslanders and similar warm, agricultural regions such as Northwestern New South Wales. In the USA they look down on the cotton farmers of the South (and those who grow tobacco, corn, watermelons and other useless stuff like food, etc).

Logically the German translation for “redneck” would have to be “Frenchman” (in the spirit of European unity).