The term is chiefly used today for a rural poor white person of the southern US. It can be derogatory like cracker, hillbilly, and white trash.
In the 19th and early 20th centuries, the term characterized farmers with sunburn from hours working in the fields. A citation from 1893 provides a definition as “poorer inhabitants of the rural districts…men who work in the field, as a matter of course, generally have their skin stained red and burnt by the sun, and especially is this true of the back of their necks.” By 1975, the term had expanded to mean “a bigoted and conventional person, a loutish ultra-conservative.”
But many members of the Southern community have proudly embraced the term as a self-identifier. Among those who dispute that the term is disparaging, Canadian Paul Brandt, a self-identified redneck, says that primarily the term indicates independence.
Others have speculated that the prevalence of pellagra in the region during the great depression may have contributed to the rise in popularity of the term; red, inflamed skin is one of the first symptoms of that disorder to appear.
The term “redneck” in the early 20th century was occasionally used in reference to American coal miner union members who wore red bandannas for solidarity.
Many words commonly used in America today such as ‘hillbillies’ and ‘rednecks’ have their origins in Scottish roots. While the terms are associated today with the American South and southern culture, their origins are distinctly Scottish and Ulster-Scottish, and date to the mass immigration of Scottish Lowland and Ulster Presbyterians to America during the 1700s.
In Scotland in the 1640s, the Covenanters rejected rule by bishops, often signing manifestos using their own blood. Some wore red cloth around their neck to signify their position, and were called rednecks by the Scottish ruling class to denote that they were the rebels in what came to be known as The Bishop’s War which preceded the rise of Cromwell. Eventually, the term began to mean simply “Presbyterian,” especially in communities along the Scottish border. Because of the large number of Scottish immigrants in the pre-revolutionary American South, some historians have suggested that this may be the origin of the term in the United States.
The term seems to be popular everywhere. It was also used by the Boers from c. 1894 in South Africa to refer to an Englishman, drawn from the fact that the back of an Englishman’s neck is often burnt red by the sun. “This does not happen to the Boer, who always wears a broad-brimmed hat.” [James Bryce, Impressions of South Africa, London, 1899]
Some people may believe that ‘redneck’ merely means being independent, but I’ve never heard or read it being used in that sense. I suspect Paul Brandt has been handed some lemons and is determined to make lemonade.