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Q From Kelli Allison: A British friend tells me that the term hillbillies refers to the Irish who fled from William III to the USA and took up residence in the hills of Tennessee etc. It sounds feasible, but is my friend correct?

A It sounds a most unlikely theory, and the linguistic evidence is certainly against it. The word billy (of which hillbilly is a compound) is an English word that goes back to the early sixteenth century at least, at first meaning a friend or comrade, and later any male person, a rough equivalent of “fellow”. Hillbilly, in the sense of a rustic person, is first attested only at the very end of the nineteenth century; if it were connected with Good King Billy, it ought to have appeared much earlier.

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Page created 19 Sep. 1998

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The English language is forever changing. New words appear; old ones fall out of use or alter their meanings. World Wide Words tries to record at least a part of this shifting wordscape by featuring new words, word histories, words in the news, and the curiosities of native English speech.

World Wide Words is copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
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Last modified: 19 September 1998.