Thursday, January 31, 2013

Varieties of newspeak: folks

My long-festering hatred of the new political uses to which the word "folks" has been put in the past decade had been growing at a steady pace over the last few years, until today I came across this gem in the NYT, and could contain myself no longer:
“We have a significant mismatch between demand and supply,” said Gillian K. Hadfield, professor of law and economics at the University of Southern California. “It’s not a problem of producing too many lawyers. Actually, we have an exploding demand for both ordinary folk lawyers and big corporate ones.”
The only thing exploding in this sentence is my brain. "Ordinary folk lawyers"! Is an ordinary folk lawyer an ordinary person who practices folk law? Does he practice ordinary folk law, as against extraordinary folk law? On behalf of ordinary folks, as against extraordinary ones? Is he an ordinary folk himself?

In the 1990s, I recall "folks" as a term primarily used to refer casually to one's parents, as in "my folks took my Tamagochi away and now I have nothing to do but watch re-runs on the WB." Of course, it has always been a term for "people," but that usage had the same mainstream status as "ain't." Then, in the 2000s, folks underwent some kind of perverse transformation into a mainstream populist propaganda term for identity groups, and was used by both insiders and outsiders to forge patronizing solidarity with the downtrodden. "Folks" has that sense of personal familiarity held over from its use to denote actual family that's perfect for pretending that people who are not your family and whom you wouldn't touch with a ten-foot pole are actually near and dear to your heart, or expunging your guilt that they're not. For example, Boston's mayor on his important future-embracing move of bringing no-credit online courses to Boston "community centers":
“I’m very excited. [The partnership] brings technology into the neighborhoods of Boston. That’s so, so important. I think there are a lot of folks out there who could use that program."
"A lot of folks," none of whom happen to be Thomas Menino or his folks, of course. But he sees his common humanity with them there folks, and how important neighborhood technology is for that common humanity. Politician folk are major traffickers in the language of folk, and Obama is a strategic folk-master:
With 30 hours a week split between fieldwork and organizing members of the College Democrats, Thompson’s role is nearly a full-time job, and his vocabulary, too, has come to reflect this. “Whenever I am knocking on doors or calling people or anything like that, I always use ‘folks,’” he says, laughing. When calling voters in other states, “folks” is frequently thrown around by those working for the Obama campaign. “It plays really well up in Maine and then, when you’re calling in Virginia, it plays perfectly,” Thompson says.
I think that earlier iterations of this folk transformation were introduced by activist folks who were less interested in appearing to be in touch with ordinary folks themselves than with changing ordinary folks' perceptions of certain groups of folks who were previously stigmatized by using a familiarizing term that would make them seem more like ordinary folks - hence, "LGBT folks" and "transgender folks." (Look these folks up and you'll get thousands of instances.) They're not weirdos, they're just plan folks. In this way, identity groups of all kinds became folks, just like all the rest of us folks. We're all just folks, and just because some folks are dark-skinned folks and other folks love folks of their own gender while yet other folks don't believe that Jesus came to save their folks but maybe he still came to save your folks, all us folks can all fit on this here creaky backwoods porch and sing us some folk ditties. What d'ye say, folks? This land is your land, this land is my land, from Californyaaaa, to the New York Islaaand... (See, elitist New York folks can join right in! Populism is for everyone.)

Do you wonder, perhaps, whatever happened to the perfectly good and politically neutral term "people" to cover this? Possibly as the formulation "the Xs" (the Jews, the blacks, the gays) fell out of favor and a referential vacuum appeared, we had that option. Jewish people, black people, gay people - not so bad, and still used by the straightforward and unsentimental. But "people" seems to have been identified with some sort of antiseptic, clinical enterprise that made it synonymous with "specimens" - a social-scientific category to be studied in aggregate. For example, during the Iraq War, I never heard Iraqis being referred to as "Iraqi folks"; they were always "the Iraqi people," if they were viewed as a coherent entity at all. (But perhaps that will soon change, since Obama has begun to transnationalize folkdom - there were illegal immigrant folks in his speech this week, and the infamous Libyan terrorist folks, although we can know that terrorist folks are not our folks because he called them those folks rather than these folks.) But on the domestic front, it was all folks all the time, the corny brotherhood of man, from which no one should be excluded and no one can escape.

The problem with folks, however, is the problem of all populism. "Folks" is, after all, a country term, carrying with it all the resonances of hayseed naivete along with the familial connotation sought by its users. Folks, however endearing and lovable they may be, are always a bit stupid, a bit vulgar and clumsy, trailing behind the leading edge of society and unaware of or unable to enact their own best interests. Little, ordinary folks need bigger, more extraordinary folks (let's call them "ordinary folk lawyers") to articulate their interests against those folks (also known as "big corporate lawyers") who would subvert them. So even if we're all folks rather than folks and not-folks, there are still always these folks and those folks, and even folk lawyers are distinct from the folks who aren't lawyers but need folk-lawyering assistance.

So, individualist folks, please remember that we can still rescue the term "people" from the oblivion to which populist folks have apparently consigned it. That backcountry porch of colloquial brotherhood was not built to support the weight of 300 million people.


Withywindle said...

Popolo, volgare.

Miss Self-Important said...

Only with the definite article. Hoi polloi, the people. People as the plural of person is at least ambiguous, if not neutral. But you can begin the campaign for the widespread use of "persons."

Phoebe said...

I've used it to avoid word repetition. Repetition of the word "people," which is my default term for humans.

Miss Self-Important said...

Hm, I've never found myself in this bind, since there are so many specific descriptors. But I do sometimes use "peeps" to indicate apolitical familiarity.

PG said...

Your beginning factual claim -- "Of course, it has always been a term for "people," but that usage had the same mainstream status as "ain't" -- seems a bit limited by your own lifetime. Try searching Google News 1900-1990, and you'll find "folks" used in all kinds of situations, including about Hitler's Sudeten fans in 1938 (where at least one might think the reference is really to the Volk) and De Gaulle's in 1963 (no such option in French).

Miss Self-Important said...

Interesting, although do you find these uses odd-sounding by contemporary journalistic standards, or no? I'm not sure which papers Google has in its database (the Milwaukee Journal seems to feature disproportionately in the results here), but "folks" appears in the following contexts: "old folks" (too patronizing to print in any contemporary paper), a term for parents or hometown dwellers ("home folks" - a term I don't hear much anymore but maybe it's regional), a term for people living in small towns (ha!), and - in Canadian papers, at least - a synonym for something like how we use "guys" as an exhortation in informal speech.

I don't see many instances where it's an apolitical substitute for "people." Where it does substitute for people, it seems to be almost always in the context of an electoral constituency, and in an op-ed or a quote, which suggests to me that it's being deployed strategically for the same faux-familiarizing ends as "ordinary folk lawyer" is. I'm not seeing anything like "12 folks killed in freeway pile-up" or something like that, which is what I'd take to be a straightforward and apolitical use of the term, directly substituting for "people." The French example you link does look relatively straightfoward, but still in an electoral context, though not necessarily one that the writer would have a stake in. But I'm not seeing a lot of such uses in these results; it seems almost always to be used for political reasons in major papers when it's not part of a regional idiom, like that for parents and oldsters.

PG said...

I think "folks" is like "y'all" -- it sounds odd for people who didn't grow up hearing it, but I don't think that makes it like "ain't," which is simply ungrammatical. (An English teacher in my middle schools was notorious for fining students who said "ain't," but would say "y'all" and "folks" herself.)

Your conclusion that folks and people are not perfect synonyms is absolutely correct. E.g. no one, not even folksy politicians, refers to "the American folks" rather than "the American people." On the other hand, "folks in America" would be OK.

I'm just skeptical of the other claims: that the use of "folks" in politics or the media is a recent innovation; that it has something to do with "identity groups" specifically; or that it is directly connected to populism or carries an overtly political meaning.

I think it's simply a peculiarity of style, which pops up in pretty much all but overtly formal writing, across many regions.

The NYT in the first half of 20th century, which I don't think was particularly populist, has usages like:
"More than 300,000 folks, according to Police Capt. Thomas Murphy's figures, visited Coney Island yesterday";
"CITY FOLKS AND THE FARM; Some Urban Fallacies Are Exploded, Including That That the City Failure Can Be a Quick Success as a Farmer";
"Thief Makes Hot Folks Hotter";
The others may be arguable, but that first one seems to have been using "folks" as a very close substitute for "people."

But for the truly unfortunate example, see the Associated Press in 1950:
"Pope Tells U.S. Comedians Folks Need More Laughs
By The Associated Press. ROME, Feb. 1- Pope Pius believes there should be more laughter in the world."

Even with my greater acceptance of "folks," I'm willing to have a rule that it shouldn't appear with "the Pope."

Miss Self-Important said...

I looked this up in the NYT database in Proquest Historical Newspapers b/c it's easier to apply specific parameters there, and the results are interesting. You're right that the 1990s were not a turning point for the term; apparently the 1970s were. I looked at 1940-2009, and there were 26,000 uses of "folks" (in articles only, and compared to 2 million uses of "people"). Its use was declining until the 1970s, when it picked up again. The use of "home folks" predictably declines throughout this period to pretty much nothing, as does "old folks." I obviously didn't read through all the articles, but I skimmed a few, and a large number of these post-1970 uses are in the context of electoral jockeying and elite condescension, whereas before the 1970s, more of them are informal but direct substitutes for "people." What also increases is something like what I'm describing in the post, though it begins earlier than I claimed - the application of folks to identity politics. "Black folks" and "white folks" make their appearances in small quantities at this point (dipping in the '80s, up again in the '90s). A similar trend appears in op-eds, in smaller numbers.

This is obviously a sketchy analysis, but it does seem that the general trend I described might be accurate, though mis-dated. "Folks" begins as a regional or rural idiom with a nonpolitical meaning like "you guys" or "y'all." It's co-opted by politicians to invoke or reinforce the image of wholesomeness associated with the term's original users, and then moves into the realm of identity politics. In the first case, where politicians address their own constituencies as "folks," the aim is to create a bond of faux-familiarity b/w candidate and voter, whereas in the present-day cases I describe in the post, it's invoked by activists or partisans as well as politicians, and the aim seems to be to generate feelings of faux-familiarity with a group of Not You's.

You may want to play around with the parameters in this database if you have access to it, since there are probably other ways to measure this usage that I overlooked.