November 19, 2012

"Folks" and folksiness

From the early years of the George W. Bush administration I’ve been hearing public speakers refer to others as “folks”—to sound more genuine, informal, democratic, maybe even American.   Paula Broadwell, the now-famous paramour of General David Petraeus started a lecture on her book with the following:

Before we get started I’d like to see how many veterans there are in the room, so I know I who I’m facing. Okay, well, first of all, thank you for all of your service and I know we might have a few folks that belong to Team Red White and Blue as well, are there any folks from this veterans’ support organization?  A couple of folks, okay great, thanks for coming.
Where one would usually say “people” or “individuals,” and then “anyone,” Broadwell gets in touch with her audience by using folks.  This is a folksy (that is, common-man, rural, simple) trope that Bush seems to have initiated—how else might a wealthy grandson of a senator-and-son of a CIA director/congressman show his natural small-town, everyday tendencies?  President Obama seems to have picked it up too.  I’m sure that we can multiply more and more political figures use of “folks.”  I wish I had saved a comment I once saw, sent to the IRS by a tax accountant on behalf of a large corporation, objecting to a new tax regulation in the name of “folks.”

The folksy use of “folks” seems like a newish innovation--maybe a Bush-era innovation.  The plural is an American innovation, recognized before the American Civil War in Noah Webster’s great dictionary.  He notes (s.v. “folk”) that 

“Originally and properly it had no plural, being a collective noun ; but in modern use, in America, it has lost its singular number, and we hear it only in the plural.  It is a colloquial word, not admissible into elegant style.”
In the definition: 

1. People in general, or any part of them without distinction.  What do folks say respecting the war?  Men love to talk about the affairs of other folks.
2. Certain people, discriminated from others, as old folks and young folks.  So we say, sick folks ; poor folks ; proud folks.” (The 1848 printing of the 1845 edition.)

In the authorities collected in the Merriam-Webster Dictionary of English Usage there “folks” are typically referred to either as rural types, or in Webster’s definition, people in general or  “certain people, discriminated from others” sense.  There’s no indication that “folks” is used in the sense of particular citizens who might have particular, individual experiences, as Broadwell uses it and as Bush and Obama do. 

So these sources don't seem to indicate the politically valuable type of folksiness that Bush and Obama have tried to evoke, and with which they have infected other politically-minded people.  It strikes me as a very recent innovation.  My main objection to this use of "folks" is that it’s simply not genuine—it’s an attempt to inject some average-ness, some common-ness,  some unassuming-ness into the speech of persons who are definitely not average or common or normal.

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