The word hillbilly was first used at the turn of the twentieth century in a New York Journal article by political correspondent Julian Hawthorne, who was entranced by the word. A local described the “Hill-Billies” as:
“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 off his revolver as the fancy takes him.”
The entire concept of “hill billies” was firmly implanted in American culture throughout the century. People just found such independent critters highly amusing. The actual word “hillbilly” may have been devised from the combination of “hill dwellers” - in this case, the region of Appalachia - along with the Scottish word, “billies,” meaning a fine fellow.
The stereotype of hillbillies as being poor and socially backward might have elicited snickers among people in other regions (who naturally thought themselves of a higher social class than those backwoods hill dwelling hicks), but hillbillies were also noted for their independence and self-reliance. They just didn’t seem to know they were supposed to be pathetic!
They rejected that attitude along with the attempts of the “city folk” to reform them. You got to admire their “gumption”!
Speaking of “gumption,” it’s a Scottish word of unknown origin, meaning resourcefulness and enterprise. Not coincidentally, it’s a favorite word in “hillbilly” culture and an apt description of how the hillbilly functions in his native habitat.
In other words, the hillybilly, a word many Appalachian residents embrace to describe themselves, isn’t the put-down it’s implied to be.
Some of the lingo prevalent among hillbillies include euphemisms to demonstrate anger, such as “tarnation.” It’s a word that’s a substitute for one such as “damnation,” one a good hillybilly will avoid since it seems to be a curse word in their neck of the woods.
Hillbillies might be unlettered, but they try to avoid words that would get them in trouble with the Man upstairs! (and this doesn’t mean their neighbors.)
Other examples of euphemisms in hillbilly slang to avoid cursing are “gol durn it” and “dag nab it.”
Hillbillies get hungry (or “hawngree” as they’d say), so they seek out some “vittles” (food), which items they might include a “mater” or “tater” (tomato and potato, respectively.)
They also are excellent at coming up with unusual and interesting ways to describe distances. “Up yonder a ways” and “down the road apiece” are popular, as are “as the crow flies” and “down by the crick (creek.)”
A valley between the mountains, plentiful in Hillbilly territory, are called hollows, which is pronounced “holler.” If you’re neighbor’s coming to see you soon, he’ll be there “dreckly” (directly, or right away.)
These are just some examples of hillbilly slang.
Or he might be. Most people tend to confuse hillbillies with rednecks, and although there can be some overlap, both groups tend to correct you very quickly if you make the mistake of assuming they’re all alike.
They aren’t the same:
Hillbillies are strong and individualistic, and have a good deal of pride. During the Great Depression and later during the 1970s and 1980s, social workers who thought they’d help the mountain people very often found themselves chased out of their cabins at the point of a shotgun. The social workers learned a very quick and valuable lesson: just because you’re poor, it doesn’t mean you don’t have a great deal of pride.