Monthly Archives: February 2014

The Scots-Irish and the Hillbilly

I am always looking for good programming on tv, and found “America’s Secret Slang” on the H2 channel. Since I love words, the title aroused my senses, and I had to watch. What followed is worth mentioning. In this blog I basically write about how we use words, cliches, idioms in our language; in this program, it explains where words come from, not emphasizing the etymology (origin of a word), but the story behind the word, like “cop”. This word is Irish, coming from the Celtic word, “ceap” which means “chief”, so our word cop is a word of respect in Irish language. A totally different connotation than how we use the word today!

Onward to the story of “hillbilly”. You will be surprised how this word came into being. According to Zach Selwyn, host of “American’s Secret Slang”, some men, farmers, who fought for King William III of Scotland against England in the late 17th century came from Ulster, Scotland, the lowlands. King William was nicknamed King Billy, and the men who fought for him were referred to as “Billy Boys”. 

After the war, the King wanted the Scots, his “Billy Boys”, to go to Ireland and convert the Irish to the Scottish Presbyterian religion, so off they went to Ireland. They tried but were never accepted by the Irish and did not succeed at converting the inhabitants from Catholicism, and eventually (after being labeled as Scots-Irish) fled to America. 

They did not fare better in America because word spread when they immigrated of what they attempted in Ireland. Once again, they moved from the east coast, this time to the Appalachians, the hills, and this is where they made their home. Remember the timing, this is the beginning of our nation, when land had to be cleared and houses built from the lumber they cut. So, our derogatory “hillbilly” was really a soldier for the King, who obeyed his King by going to another country to convert the inhabitants to a protestant religion. Instead of going home, which was filled with wars and rumors of wars, they continued to a new land called America. It wasn’t easy for them here, either, but they found a life in the hills around Tennessee, and they continued with their customs, their term of endearment, “Billy Boy”, and their music.

This music eventually gave us some great music and musicians — from Elvis to Hank Williams to Loretta Lynn to Patsy Cline and Dolly Parton. Today those Scots-Irish fiddles and banjos are assimilated into the music we know as country.

This program is worth watching. Usually, I do not promote a series, but this so correlates to what I do here that I had to share. I have looked to see when the next episode airs, and the shows I found (and recorded) were from the 2013 season. It looks like more will air in April, 2014, but I am not for sure. I will keep you posted, but in between time, if the series airs as reruns, they will be worth your watch.





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