By Todd J. Wilkinson
Many words commonly used in America today have their origins in our Celtic roots. While the following terms discussed are associated today with the American South and southern culture, their origins are distinctly Scottish and Ulster-Scottish (Scots-Irish), and date to the mass immigration of Scottish Lowland and Ulster Presbyterians to America during the 1700’s. Whilst there are other competing explanations of the derivation of some of them, we prefer the ones here!
The origin of this American nickname for mountain folk in the Ozarks and in Appalachia comes from Ulster. Ulster-Scottish (The often incorrectly labeled “Scots-Irish”) settlers in the hill-country of Appalachia brought their traditional music with them to the new world, and many of their songs and ballads dealt with William, Prince of Orange, who defeated the Catholic King James II of the Stuart family at the Battle of the Boyne, Ireland in 1690.
Supporters of King William were known as Orangemen and Billy Boys and their North American counterparts were soon referred to as hill-billies. It is interesting to note that a traditional song of the Glasgow Rangers football club today begins with the line, ‘Hurrah! Hurrah! We are the Billy Boys!’ and shares its tune with the famous American Civil War song, Marching Through Georgia.
Stories abound of American National Guard units from Southern states being met upon disembarking in Britain during the First and Second World Wars with that tune, much to their displeasure! One of these stories comes from Colonel Ward Schrantz, a noted historian and native of Carthage, Missouri ative, and veteran of the Mexican – and veteran of the mexican Border Campaign, as well as the First and Second World Wars – documented a story where the US Army’s 30th Division, made up of National Guard units from Georgia, North and South Carolina and Tennessee arrived in the United Kingdom…’a waiting British band broke into welcoming American music, and the soldiery, even the 118th Field Artillery and the 105 Medical Battalion from Georgia, broke into laughter.The excellence of intent and the ignorance of the origins of the American music being equally obvious. The welcoming tune was Marching Through Georgia.’
The origins of this term are Scottish and refer to supporters of the National Covenant and The Solemn League and Covenant, or Covenanters, largely Lowland Presbyterians, many of whom would flee Scotland for Ulster (Northern Ireland) during persecutions by the British Crown. The Covenanters of 1638 and 1641 signed the documents that stated that Scotland desired the Presbyterian form of church government and would not accept the Church of England as its official state church.
Many Covenanters signed in their own blood and wore red pieces of cloth around their necks as distinctive insignia; hence the term Red neck, which became slang for a Scottish dissenter. One Scottish immigrant, interviewed by the author, remembered a Presbyterian minister, one Dr. Coulter, in Glasgow in the 1940’s wearing a red clerical collar – is this symbolic of the rednecks? Since many Ulster-Scottish settlers in America (especially in the South) were Presbyterian, the term was applied to them, and then, later, their Southern descendants. One of the earliest examples of its use comes from 1830, when an author noted that red-neck was a name bestowed upon the Presbyterians. It makes one wonder if the originators of the ever-present redneck jokes are aware of the term’s origins?
Another term for Presbyterians in Ireland was a Blackmouth. Members of the Church of Ireland (Anglicans) used this as a slur, referring to the fact that one could tell a Presbyterian by the black stains around his mouth from eating blackberries while at secret, illegal Presbyterian Church Services in the countryside.
Another Ulster-Scot term, a cracker was a person who talked and boasted, and craic is a term still used in Scotland and Ireland to describe talking, chat or conversation in a social sense (‘Let’s go down the pub and have a craic’ or ‘What’s the craic?’). The term, first used to describe a southerner of Ulster-Scottish background, later became a nickname for any white southerner, especially those who were uneducated.
And while not an exclusively Southern term, but rather referring in general to all Americans, the origins of this word are related to the other three.
Often used in Latin America to refer to people from the United States, gringo also has a Scottish connection. The term originates from the Mexican War (1846-1848), when American Soldiers of Scots descent would sing Robert Burns’ Green Grow the Rashes, O!, or the very popular song Green Grows the Laurel (or lilacs) while serving in Mexico, thus inspiring the locals to refer to the Yankees as green-grows or gringos. The song Green Grows the Laurel refers to several periods in Scottish and Ulster-Scottish history. Jacobites might change the green laurel for the bonnets so blue of the exiled Stewart monarchs of Scotland during the Jacobite Rebellions of the late 1600’s – early 1700’s. Scottish Lowlanders and Ulster Presbyterians would change the green laurel of James II in 1690 for the Orange and Blue of William of Orange, and later on, many of these Ulstermen would immigrate to America, and thus change the green laurel for the red, white and blue.
An opposing theory to the origin of Gringo claims that the term actually comes from the Spanish word “griego”, which means “Greek”, as in the expression, It’s all Greek to me. The term reportedly referred to foreigners living in Spain, whose accent made their attempts to speak Spanish difficult to understand by Spanish natives. The term may specifically refer to the Irish, many of whom fled to Spain in the late 1600’s to escape religious persecution.
Adamson, Ian. The Ulster People: Ancient, Medieval and Modern. Bangor, Northern Ireland: Petani Press, 1991.
Bruce, Duncan. The Mark of the Scots: Their Astonishing Contributions to History, Science, Democracy, Literature and the Arts. Secaucus, New Jersey: Birch Lane Press, 1997.
Fischer, David Hackett. Albion’s Seed: Four British Folkways in America. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989.
McWhiney, Grady. Cracker Culture: Celtic Ways in the Old South. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1988.
Personal Interview, Mr. Bill Carr, Ayrshire native and member, Celtic Society of the Ozarks, January 2001.
Colonel Ward Schrantz papers, Jasper County Archives and Record Center, Carthage, Missouri.
Stevenson, James A.C. SCOOR-OOT: A Dictionary of SCOTS Words and Phrases in Current Use. London: The Athlone Press, 1989.
Urban Legends Reference Pages: http://www.snopes.com/language/stories/gringo.htm
Walsh, Frank, and the 12th Louisiana String Band. Songs of the Celtic South album, 1991.