Paul Greenberg

"I owe an apology to the good people of Bristol, Va., for something stupid that I said last week. I was trying to explain based on reporting from Democratic strategists why Barack Obama was campaigning in southwest Virginia. But without attribution or explanation, I used a term strategists often use to demean an entire community."

What's the world coming to? Here we have political strategists talking plain and reporters using mushspeak. The world's done turned upside down.

Sure, some words should be off-limits, and everybody knows which ones they are. That is, everybody who had a mama who threatened to wash his mouth out with soap if he ever used that word again. But "redneck"? What next? Will we be forced to say "the Y-word" when we mean Yankee?

Every time a perfectly good American word is lost, we are all deprived. And the cumulative effect is a life-destroying erosion of the language, which is sapped of its power, vitality and variety. Redneck an insult? Rednecks would only laugh at the idea - because rednecks are proud of who they are. That's why they can afford a sense of humor. In a world of anemic, self-censored, pre-washed, so-called commentary, their pride is refreshing.

Who are these rednecks anyway? One inadequate definition would be to say they're the descendants of the Scots-Irish who pushed the American frontier across first the Appalachians and then ever westward, spreading as far north as the hills of Pennsylvania and as far south and west as wide-open Texas, leaving their manners, speech and customs an indelible if often unremarked part of the American character.

Oh, yes, rednecks are also fighters. Which means that, ignored and snubbed in times of peace, or just patronized by those who think their very name an insult, they are always called on when the country's in real trouble. To this day, they are part of the backbone of the United States military. They are, in short, people to tie to. They will stand their ground, as America's enemies have discovered since 1776 and long before. They need no one to come to their defense, let alone shield them from their honest name. Yes, they can be touchy, but only about matters of honor.

Rednecks embrace simplicity as a welcome change from the kind of fraudulent sophistication you can hear at a click of the channel on television or on National Platitudinous Radio. But that doesn't make them simple. Quite the opposite. Their code is as involved as any Bedouin's, and maybe more so than the Southern gentleman's. Indeed, the two - gentleman and redneck - are part of the Southern whole, complementing and competing with each other, each half-envying, half-pitying the other but aware they share an indissoluble bond that involves the land, the language and whatever is the essence of what the South is, or was. Both may now be endangered species, united by what they are not: false.

Those who object to the name redneck, if not the species itself, might as well take offense at Arkie or Okie or black or Creole. Hasn't the Southern language lost enough distinctive words, and therefore distinctive thought, to the bowdlerizers, the euphemizers and sanitizers who would leave the treasure of the Southern tongue as barren and burned-over as the once green acres Sherman ravaged on his march to the sea? Enough verbicide. The toll has already been too heavy. Let's not lose a word that sums up a whole ethos.

Paul Greenberg

Pulitzer Prize-winning Paul Greenberg, one of the most respected and honored commentators in America, is the editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.