Word "hillbilly" once a term of endearment in Appalachia

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Word
West Virginia mountain folk dance in an 1872 illustration by Porte Crayon for Harper's New Monthly Magazine.

According to some authorities, the word "hillbilly" was a term of endearment in the Appalachian Mountains in the early 1800s, though it later developed negative connotations.

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The late Jim Comstock, the former publisher of the West Virginia Hillbilly newspaper, believed that residents of the Appalachian valleys first used the term to describe their neighbors in the mountains.

Comstock, who cherished the term "hillbilly," had attempted to set the record straight on many assumptions about West Virginia and Appalachian cultures from the 1950s until the '90s.

Pendeleton County, Potomac Branches Region
The Appalachian Mountains extend across the entire Mountain State, east to west and north to south. (Photo courtesy Rick Burgess.)

Comstock wrote: "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," referring to Wayne County, Kentucky, where he speculated the term came into use.

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"The word 'billy' is of Scottish origin and is a synonym for the word 'fellow,' " he wrote. "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 believe the term originated in Scotland and was used to describe residents who escaped into the isolation of the hills or were followers of William of Orange. In his book "From Ulster to America: The Scotch-Irish Heritage of American English," Michael Montgomery claims the term did not appear until the late 1800s in America and so could not be of Old World origin.

The term may have begun to take on negative connotations after the U.S. Civil War. Residents of Appalachia then began to fall socially and technologically behind other areas due to the isolating mountains.

Outsiders soon began to perceive mountain folk as violent and backward. The stereotype developed further, fueled by newspaper stories of Appalachian feuds, such as that of the Hatfields and McCoys in the 1880s.

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Comstock, who took great pride in his West Virginia heritage, said he found much ironic about the term's pejorative turn.

"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," Comstock wrote.

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 begun to adopt it proudly, and some of the associations which have previously made it a disrespectful term have begun to fade away."

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West Virginia provided the ideal refuge for a would-be hero

Sibray visits the remote grave of Captain Ralph Stewart near Oceana, West Virginia.
Sibray visits the remote grave of Captain Ralph Stewart in the mountains of northern Wyoming County, West Virginia.

As the legend goes, a band of marauding Shawnee had burned Ralph Stewart's father at the stake, so none were surprised when he left the Shenandoah Valley at age 14 to become an Indian fighter. He battled the Shawnee himself at age 25 at the Battle of Point Pleasant in 1774, and four years later he fought the English in tidewater Virginia. How did his grave wind up in one of the most remote mountain valleys in West Virginia? Read the full story here.


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