The word “hillbilly” is commonly said to have an origin among those Appalachians claiming a Protestant “Scots-Irish” identity, folks whose forefathers were supposedly supporters of William of Orange (“King Billy” to his Protestant English and Scottish supporters, b1650, d1702).
This is almost certainly a false folk etymology.
The so-called “Glorious Revolution” of 1689, in which “King Billy” (Willem Hendrik of the Dutch Republic) overthrew James II/VII of England, Scotland and Ireland, predates by over two centuries the first attested use of the word “hillbilly” in America.
Those who listened to our Black Paddywhackery podcast episodes will have heard that many, many people arriving in America from the province of Ulster in Ireland during the 1700s were not a cohesive or homogenous group in any ethnic sense.
Northern Ireland in the 1700s was after all a multi-ethnic frontier colonial enterprise, just as Kansas in the mid-1800s was a hodge-podge of “Old Mix Americans“, recent European immigrants, and indigenous peoples.
The descendants of people arriving in America during the 1700s from this multi-ethnic colonial Ulster would spend the next 100-200 years in America calling themselves English, Welsh, Scots, Irish, or indeed, “American”.
The one thing they certainly never called themselves was “Scots-Irish”.
That “ethnicity” or identity would only be invented after the American Revolution – becoming particularly popular in the 1840s and 1850s, as a way to differentiate themselves from what they perceived as the low-life Catholic Gaelic-speaking peasant scum arriving in America to escape the Great Irish Famine.
Back in the 1690s, in the years after William of Orange arrived on the scene in the British Isles, it was also a time of hunger and famine – but back then it was in Scotland.
So the 1690s saw a massive wave of Scottish economic migrants and famine refugees making the short boat journey to Ulster, a place relatively unscathed by famine at the time.
These desperate Scots came from many different backgrounds – they were not all Scottish Presbyterians, nor were they all cheerleaders for “King Billy”.
Many of these Scottish economic migrants to Ulster would have moved on for America within only 1, 2, or 3 generations, and it seems unlikely that they saw themselves as anything other than “Scots”.
Most of the earliest settlers to move into the mountains of Southern Appalachia after the American Revolution came from the adjacent states of Virginia and North Carolina.
The Virginia and Carolina backcountry around the year 1790 had about 2 people of actual Scottish ancestry to every 1 person of Ulster background, and as we have just heard, many of these people of Ulster also saw themselves as Scottish.
87,895 actual Scots in Virginia and North Carolina, 1790
43,894 people of Ulster background in Virginia and North Carolina, 1790
On balance, it seems more likely that the general Scots-English slang word “Billy” was in widespread use in frontier times – and not specific to people from Ulster, let alone the Americans who would later call themselves “Scots-Irish”.
In 1790 (among people of Scottish background) “Billy” would have been used much in the same way Americans now use the term “buddy” or “guys”, as in “Hey you guys, lets go for a cold beer”, or “How’s it going, buddy?”
In the British Isles, “Billy” has largely been replaced by terms like “lad” or “bloke” or “mate”.
Like many other old words from the 1700s, the term “Billy” lingered-on in remote mountain places in America.
As Appalachians began to seek work in places far from their mountain homes in the late 1800s and early 1900s, non-Appalachians would have heard them using the word “Billy” among one another.
And it would be these outsiders who would add “hill” to the word “Billy” to describe the mountain people they looked down upon.
#BeforeWeWereWhite #hillbilly #FolkEtymology