The word “hillbilly” was a term of endearment in the Appalachian Mountains in the 1800s, though it later took on negative connotations.
The term was first used by residents of the valleys to describe their neighbors in the mountains, according to the late Jim Comstock, publisher of the weekly West Virginia Hillbilly newspaper from 1957 until 1992.
“The word is said to have originated as a means of distinguishing people who lived in the mountainous region of the county from those who lived in the valley,” Comstock wrote, referring to Wayne County, Kentucky, where he speculated the term came into use.
“The word ‘billy’ is of Scottish origin and is a synonym for the word ‘fellow.’ At first, the word had no derogatory meaning at all. It was simply a means of defining a man’s place of origin, but in time it came to be used in a pejorative sense, and in modern dictionaries definitions of the word often say something like: “Hillbilly (n) an illiterate mountaineer; a rough, uncouth countryman.”
Some scholars argue that the term originated in Scotland and was used to describe residents who escaped into the isolation of the hills or who were followers of William of Orange. Michael Montgomery in his book “From Ulster to America: The Scotch-Irish Heritage of American English” claims the term did not appear in use until the late 1800s in America and could not, therefore, be of old-world origin.
The term may have begun to take on negative connotations after the U.S. Civil War as residents of Appalachia began to fall behind other areas socially and technologically as a result of the isolating mountains.
Outsiders began to perceive mountain folk as violent and backward. Fueled by news stories of Appalachian feuds, such as that of the Hatfields and McCoys in the 1880s, the stereotype developed further.
Comstock, who took great pride in his West Virginia mountain heritage, said he found much about its pejorative turn ironic.
“Wayne County, Kentucky, was the first of that state’s 120 counties to establish a free public school system, and Kentucky was the first state in the nation to authorize a state public school system,” he remarked.
Television programs in the 1960s, such as The Andy Griffith Show and The Beverly Hillbillies, began to portray hillbillies as backward, though possessing innate wisdom that allowed them to humorously outmatch sophisticated neighbors.
“Although dwellers of the lowlands still use the term as a slur,” Comstock wrote, “mountain people have in recent years have begun to adopt it proudly, and some of the associations which have previously made it a disrespectful term have begun to fade away.”