My animus against folks is of about a decade-and-a-half’s standing–roughly coinciding with the present extent of my adult life. As a youngster, growing up in exurban intramillennial central Florida, I associated folks with a decidedly spotty melange of people and milieus: broad-as-birchwood depictions of hillbilly life, whether of the televisual Beverlyian or animatronic Disneyan rural ursine variety; certain second-tier old-timey crooners such as Burl Ives; the Po Folks chain of so-called family restaurants; and new-timey country singer Mel Tillis’s commercials for the petroleum vendor FINA (“They’re my kind of f-f-f-folks at FINA” was Mel’s stammering signature line). I cannot recall a single occasion of my minority on which the f-word was used by anyone actually in my presence–whether my parents, my grandparents, my teachers, my principal, my schoolmates (on either side of any so-called tracks), my bus drivers, the school janitor, or, indeed, the homeless dude at the convenience store up the road. In other words, I regarded folks as part of the vernacular not of a particular class of people, but of a certain ontological category thereof; that category being something as pretty darn near close to fictional as one could get beyond spitting distance of a “Once upon a time…” clause.
It was only after I moved to Maryland at the age of 22, in 1994, that I started to notice the use of folks by incontestably existent, living people. A certain sort of ill-meaning and not very clever pedant will want to explain away this irruption by telling me that folks is a southernism (he may be partly right about that, for reasons that I shall go into a bit further on1), and that whereas Florida is not really part of the south, Maryland, being south of the Mason-Dixon line really is part of it (“But isn’t Florida also south of–”–Yes, yes, yes: you see what I mean about his not being very clever). Well, I don’t know. Certainly I at least started out southern enough to think of you all (albeit not y’all) as the natural plural of you; and have finished up having to acclimatize myself to the universal prevalence of you guys that a Non-Former-Soviet-Georgian cousin of mine forewarned me of.
At any rate, in those early folksian days the chief aficionado of the f-word in my lifeworld did happen to be a native Marylander, the host of a talk show on our local NPR affiliate. Seriously, folks, at times one suspected that this gentleman or fellow had been the victim of some extraordinarily successful Manchurian Candidate-style brainwashing operation intended to wipe away every trace of the word people from the tables of his cerebral cortex. But this gentleman or fellow was hardly an animatronic bear, or a hillbilly, or a country singer, or a second-tier crooner, or a new-timey country singer, or even a restaurateur; he was, indeed, a sort of ex-hippie-cum-political radical of the most stereotypically northeastern urban stripe. Whence, then, issued his attachment to the accursed f-word?
Later on, when I went to work at a certain state governmental agency purportedly representing the interests of the most sacred of sacred legislative cows–or, rather, goats, i.e., kids–I was appalled by the shameless abandon with which the f-word was bandied about in every setting from the shop floor to the top brass, from the most casual water-cooler chinwags to the triple-bond paper-imprinted official communications issuing from La Heffe herself. One employee in particular insisted–and, indeed, still insists–on superscribing a “FOLKS,” to each and every one of his electronic messages addressed to the agency en masse. Surely, he would have exhibited more courtesy in omitting the salutation altogether.
On the other hand, during this same period, I did not witness any new predilection for folks among either my friends and relatives back in Florida or the friends I had since made up north, which suggested that the upsurge in folks-usage in my lifeworld–as against, say, the corresponding upsurge in the likes of my bad, no worries, and all that good stuff therein–had nothing to do with anything so simultaneously epidemic and ephemeral as a trend.
And on yet a third hand, there were occasional–very occasional signs–that I was not alone in my aversion to folks, or at least to certain genres of its application. The first such sign turned up during a radio interview with our State’s most far-right Republican representative to the U. S. House, Wayne Gilchrest, on the aforementioned local radio personality’s show. The host happening to be going on apodictically about the unwisdom, injustice, or what have you, of “locking up folks for life” (or maybe “putting folks to death”), Gilchrist indignantly interjected, “Not folks: criminals.” Then there was Jon Stewart’s well-adjudged remark apropos of President Bush’s avowal on September 11, 2001, within hours of the attacks, to “go after the folks” responsible for them: “A group of folks,” Stewart demurred, through his admittedly then-already-insufferable faux-deadpan half-smirk, “is what you run into at an Olive Garden.”
On the whole, and over the long run, though, I have not noticed any diminution in folks‘s popularity among broadcasters, politicians, or governmental officials; and, indeed, if the free ride given by the media to President-elect Obama’s truly Dubyahworthy attachment to the f-word 2 may be taken as a presage, folks-droppers may well be on the verge of attaining an absolute ascendancy that heretofore has remained tantalizingly–albeit only inches–beyond their reach.
I have so far largely confined myself to a log of my personal experience in order to distance myself from the stance of elitism that would otherwise by default be ascribed to me, merely in virtue of the topic of my essay and my polemical attitude thereunto–or, if you prefer, in order to refine and specify the character of my elitism. For the pandemicism of folks in our political and civic discourse has never been exactly offensive, but rather to the extreme degree, and in the most visceral sense, creepyto me; I really do feel as though at the age of 22 I was suddenly beset by the spiritual analogue of a mass of dweeby, polyhedral dice-wielding interlocutors and orators referring to halflings and elves and magic usersfor the first time as real world-inhabiting entities.
No less disconcerting has been the hard time that individuals of all ages, sexes, and walks of life have since given me about my beef with folks. “My dear fellow! or Jesus Christ!or Sir! or Dude!” they remonstrate, “I really don’t see what all the fuss is about. Isn’t folks just another word for people?” Alas!: As far as the dictionaries are concerned–and I have consulted quarter-dozens of them, from the 1947 Oxford Universal to the 2000 American Heritage–the answer to this question would appear to be a unanimous “Yes,” albeit with the equally unanimous qualification that such synonymy is, or ought to be, either largely or exclusively confined to the colloquial register.
But what of that? Don’t many of these dictionaries also assign this label of colloquial to the most common contractions, such as can’t, won’t, and, indeed don’t? And can anyone be so fuddy-duddyish or robotic as to proscribe them as categorically as I would proscribe folks? Clearly colloquial is entirely too crude and catchall a category to apprehend the nuance of objectionability presented by folks: Clearly folks is not exactly slang (in other words, unfit to appear in writing of any serious sort without quotation marks), but that does not necessarily mean it is as OK as OK.
To get a proper sense of this nuance, you really have to go all the way back to Samuel Johnson’s dictionary of 1755, where he writes in his gloss of folk (yes, admittedly in the singular), “It is now used only in comic or burlesque language” [italics mine]–and means by comic or burlesque language, language intended to make the people so designated look amusing or ridiculous. Folks by Johnson’s time simply were not to be taken quite as seriously as other denominations of people, however fully interchangeable with them they otherwise were: They were to be neither admired nor feared; their triumphs and sorrows elicited laughter and pity rather than envy and compassion.
Not that this had always been the case, as Johnson’s adverbial qualifier now makes amply clear; but even in 1755, then was a pretty well-nigh prehistoric time, namely that of Chaucer (13??-1400), who could write, “longen folk to go on pilgrimages” with the understanding that these folk comprised not only people of such dubious social status as millers and wives of Bath, but also perfectly respectable franklins and nuns (together with their priests), and even such epitomes of the cream of fourteenth-century English society as “very, perfect, gentil knights.” Of course, certain of the very phrases I have just been bandying about–”perfectly respectable,” “the cream of society,” being anachronisms of vaguely Victorian provenance, are at best tongue-in-cheek approximations of the social strata exemplified by Chaucer’s characters and would have been unintelligible to him and them; in Chaucer’s day, indeed, there was no “society” as we–or, at any rate, our nineteenth-century forbears–understood it: no calling cards, debutante’s balls, or Who’s Who; and also no Pony Express, Bureau of Indian Affairs, or punch-card tallied census. Thus the comic or burlesque connotations that folk had acquired by Johnson’s day, when “society” was just coming into being in tandem with such innovations of enlightenment as numbered street addresses and the steam engine. From at least Johnson’s time onward, folk and folks have always by default evoked the participants in a more primitive and less technically elaborate form of social organization; whereas people by default–and in every conceivable sense–has always evoked the living constituents, be they ever so humble or unwashed, of the social organism of the present.3
Folks is the ideal cautionary exception to George Orwell’s rule (a dubious enough one anyhow) that one should “prefer the Saxon word to the Latin one.” For there is no other Latin word in our vocabulary so humbly and solidly established in the vernacular, so unassumingly unhifalutin’, as people; nor any so pretentiously lowfalutin’ as folks. Kingsley Amis, in his 1976 novel The Alteration, set in a counterfactually non-industrialized, un-enlightened, and Roman Catholic-dominated version of then present-day England, quite economically points up the incongruous antiquity of his world by ruthlessly keeping people out of his characters’ mouths and folk ubiquitously in them. Folks are the perennial slow-pokes of history, the people the perennial standard-bearers thereof. The specific images associated with these two words may change with the passage of the decades and centuries, but the so-called time-lag between them remains constant. Seventy years or so ago, the phrase the peopleconjured up the image of an undifferentiated monochrome mob of dustbowl refugees clad in then state-of-the art Lenin caps, overalls, and suit-jackets; today, no one dressed as the people of that time were dressed could escape conscription into the dimwitted, half-toothless army of folks.
What possible rhetorical advantage could a speaker or writer gain by suggesting, or even explicitly stating, that his listeners or readers were already members of such an army? Or, better put, who could ever wish to be classified as such? To which one of course must answer, No one in simultaneous possession of half a brain and the most obtuse sense of shame. But many people, to be sure, are in possession of neither of these. Stupidity is perhaps–I concede through gritted teeth–no more rife at present than it was at any time in the past; but shamelessness has clearly been on the rise over the past few decades at least; and it is to this rise, I submit, that we owe the parallel inflation in prestige and rhetorical utility of folks.
Let us not be deceived, ladies and gentlemen, by such trends as the sprouting up of massive fine wine and spirit warehouses in the midst of inner-city white trash ghettoes; the appearance of such erewhile exotica as sushi and edamame alongside the Lunchables and Hot Pockets in the coolers of our Little Generals and 7-11s; the marked diminution, in the restaurant listings of our local newspaper, of column-inches subsumed under such familiar headings as ‘Mexican’ and ‘Chinese’, relative to those devoted to such newcomers as ‘Meso-Tasmanian’ and ‘Pan-Batavian’. We may have entered an era wherein it is unprecedentedly not unheard-of for a trailer-park tenant in Bumf**k, Tennessee to cultivate a passion for authentically Hungarian Tokay and vintage burgundies (and to turn his nose up at PBR and Budweiser); but surely these patchy zeitgeist-ial sops to the most fatuous register of snobbism–namely, the culinary one–are more than offset by the universally-attestable spectacle of hordes of hideously fat, T-shirted and chino-shorted, androgynous, and only vaguely anthropomorphic beings treading the sidewalks of the most prestigious thoroughfares of our least provincial metropolises of a midsummer weekend afternoon. Few heterosexual couples among us, even in the upper strata of the upper classes, seem any longer to aspire to be Rob and Laura Petrie or Bob and Emily Hartley and fewer still would blush in shame rather than in pride upon being likened to Homer and Marge Simpson or Jeff and Suzy Foxworthy. We might say that the very abstract ideal of urbanity itself has vanished from our collective national wish list, to be replaced by a frantic, indiscriminate, blue-light-special style gourmandizing of nominalized, high-ticket commodities (whether wines or cities of residence) subtended by a universal slouching towards a de facto folksiness.4
Speaking of folksiness, I should perhaps point out that this word is the closest that the genius of our language has yet gotten to supplying us with a synonymous analogue to populism; to a class of word, specifically an abstraction, that stands in the same sort of relation to folks as populism does to people. That our dictionaries remain (for the moment) blissfully unblighted by an entry for folkulism in itself suggests that we anglophones generally observe certain parallel differences between folks and people, and further that to be opposed to the one is not even quasi-axiomatically to be opposed to the other.
It all comes down to the difference between the metaphysical denotations of ness and ism. Populism, in virtue of its ism-ist termination, and in parallel to such other notable ism-ist words as communism, revanchism, and Fabianism, denotes an ideology: to be a populist is to be wildly enthusiastic about the idea of the people, just as to be an elitist is to be wildly enthusiastic about the elite, an just as to be a communist is to be wildly enthusiastic about the idea of communes, to be a revanchist is to be wildly enthusiastic about the idea of revenge, and to be a Fabianist to be wildly enthusiastic about the idea of people named Fabian (notably, perhaps, the 1960s teen idol). Folksiness, in virtue of its ness-y terminations, and in parallel to such other notable ness-ywords as roguishness, whorishness, and–lest I be thought to have my finger pressed too firmly down on the negative side of the scale–kingliness, denotes a way of behaving: to be roguish, swinish, or kingly is to behave as it behooves a rogue, a whore, or a king to behave. And likewise to be folksy is to behave as it behooves a folk (sic) or folks to behave.
Here, at last, in this persistence of folksy and folkish alongside folk in our vernacular, we may at last descry solid grounds for arguing against the utterly wrongheaded reflex to shrug off folks as a mere people-synonym: namely that in everyday parlance, the folk (sic), no less than the king or the whore or the rogue remains a type of person, hence incapable of substituting even roughly for personhood in toto. We may not all be agreed on the precise set of behaviors folks engage in: for some of us (like me) it may include tobacco-chewing, banjo-plucking, and pig-f***ing; for others (like Jon Stewart), it may comprise no item more reprehensible than Olive-Garden frequenting (“Different folks for different folks, n’est-ce-pas?”); but we apparently are all agreed on the fact that these are not behaviors habitually engaged in by absolutely everyone. On the other hand, we do not expect persons or peopleto behave in any specific way, or even to behave at all; to have been born human, in this or any other possible world, is a sufficient qualification for personhood. And death itself is not a disqualification for personhood, as the idiomatic currency of the phrases dead person and dead people attests.
It is just the sort of metaphysically comprehensive, dragnet-like quality of person and people that cannot fail to occasionally prove downright indispensable even in the most otherwise folko-fellationary passages of rhetoric of any orator aspiring even to the office of city dogcatcher. For regardless of whether elected officials conform to the law, they are, in virtue of their appointed function, obliged to pay aggressive lip-service to it; and the law, as Immanuel Kant famously observed back in seventeen-eighty-whenever, recognizes individual human organisms only as persons;and while some of these personsin our world may very well be namable as folks, others of them will undoubtedly be more aptly designated by assholes, rogues, little old ladies, nice guys, andvarious other non-ism-ableappellations.
Of course, as Kant no less famously added, the law did not and never would bother to recognize individual human organisms as subjects: as individuals morally answerable directly to each other and necessarily, inevitably susceptible of experience (or, as far as virtually everybody nowadays is concerned, the single treacly flavor of experience known as emotions). But elected officials, in their capacities as orators, members of the so-called community, and–I’m afraid there really is no less canty word answering to the job description–leaders, are unfortunately not exempt from recognition of their constituents’ subjectivity.
Whence, the folksophile smugly chimes in, the utility of “folks.”
Hence, indeed, sir, the utility thereof.
But of what worth is that utility assayed in tandem with its perfidy, its sneakiness, its sheer half-assed whininess? Folks quite efficiently conquers half of the ethical orb of Kantian subjectivity: the passive, miserable, hard-put-upon half. Bad things are continually happening to folks, folks are continually frustrated by the gazillions of yards of red tape spooling out of Washington (not to mention Montpelier, Bismarck, Juneau, etc.), folks are continually complaining about this and that to their congressmen; and while they are awfully good at spotlighting other people’s disinclination to get off their butts anddo somethingabout some hot-button issue, they are not much good at getting anything done themselves, or at being held accountable for their actions–the last two participial phrases comprising the complementary active half of Kant’s idea of subjectivity.
I cannot claim to have ready to hand some rhetorical-formulaic alternative to folks that does fairly by subjectivity in all of its rich, fruity wholeness; or, rather, the one such formula I do have ready to hand–namely, ladies and gentlemen–has already been so long and thoroughly discredited that I am probably safe in assuming that it will never again be uttered by any palate-loving tongue outside the city limits of Las Vegas.
But just ponder this a moment, if you will, folks, as a sort of thought-experiment (y’all’ve heard tell of thought experiments down in Blue Ash and Philomath, hain’tcha?): a gentleman was the sort of bloke who, on being insulted by another fellow, would, as a matter of course, challenge him to a duel. As for a lady–well, shucks, folks, residual chivalry rather forbids my making explicit the sorts of things ladies did or didn’t do for this and that reason; but, you may rest assured, there were plenty of them, and they kept her person and conscience quite busy.
Now, I would never be so sentimental a laudator temporis acti as to assert that even the smallest fraction of any of the people either referred to or addressed as ladies or gentlemen by the orators of yore were deserving of the appellation. But surely it bespoke more consideration of the subjective integrity of these people to flatter them that they were ladies and gentlemen than to insult their good breeding by assuming that they were mere folks. (Cf. the scholar speaking at a professional convention of scholars and who addresses his audience as his “learned colleagues” rather than as the “incorrigible dumbasses” that he doubtless believes it to be largely composed of.) By hailing their audiences as if they were already unalloyedly composed of ladies and gentlemen, these orators evinced the expectation that they were at least potentially capable of behaving like ladies and gentlemen, i.e., if not as paragons of virtue, then at least as moral agents of some sort.
Any worthy successor to L&G will likewise have to have this sense of intersubjective obligation built into it. Rest assured, dear reader, for all of my championing of person and people in first and third-person settings, I am mindful of its utter unsuitability in second-person ones. Only a migraine-enraged elementary school teacher can or should get away with putting people to a vocative use, and the NAACP were indeed right in 1992 to protest Ross Perot’s interpellation of them as you people, and to withhold their endorsement of him on its account.
That does not mean, though, that Barack Obama should be given carte blanche sixteen years later to refer to terrorists, corporate lawyers, and every other genre of human entity under the first-world twenty-first century sun as folks. Not that I can help suspecting that given his druthers and sufficient leisure for the requisite coaching sessions, medical treatment, and the like, Mr. Obama would happily renounce such a prerogative. For Mr. Obama is certainly and by any measure the least folksy person to have been elected to the presidency since Bush 40, and perhaps even since Richard Nixon (depending on whether you think Jimmy Carter’s silly accent qualifies as a genuine folksy trait, or that his folksy peanut-farming metier [itself plausibly assimilable to a certain Roman republican gentlemanly ethos, by the way] is canceled out by his wonky nuclear physics credentials). Mr. Obama may be reflexively over-partial to the f-word now, but one suspects that his partiality thereunto was acquired not all that long ago, during his prime flesh-pressing days as a stage legislator; and that like many such late acquisitions–a post-teenage smoking habit, for example–it may be dropped with grace, ease, and even aplomb. May not Mr. Obama, now that he has left the dusty, tumbleweed-strewn sidewalks of Springfield and Chicago behind him for good, be suffered finally to renounce this constant adversion to the f-word? Nay, is it not even conceivable that the American electorate, in having chosen so unfolksy a gentleman as their leader, have meant to signal to Washington that they were ready for change; ready at last, for the first time in decades, to be addressed by some other sort of formula than folks, and treated as people once again, by a man unashamed to call himself a person? Well, folks, I guess anything is possible.
-Douglas Robertson is a writer residing in Baltimore. Certain of his other writings are to be found at The Philosophical Worldview Artist.
Albeit only in a footnote (viz. No. 4 below).
“[W]e took our eye off Afghanistan, we took our eye off the folks who perpetrated 9/11, they are still sending out videotapes…” Barack Obama during the first presidential debate, September 26, 2008. Mr. Obama used folks five times during that debate, Mr McCain not once.
This distinction is obviously reflected in the very existence of the generic categories of folk music and folk art, originating as they did in a solidly industrial era when the attributive adjective “popular” was already more immediately evocative of the music halls frequented by the literate urban proletariat than of village taverns where authentic peasants played authentic peasant music on authentic peasant instruments.
If I had to posit a single efficient cause of such slouching, it would be the hyper-urbanization of the South, by which I do not mean so much a demographic shift as a so-called cultural one, the gradual (i.e., ca. 1970-1990) nationwide dawning of an awareness that, for example, Houston and Atlanta were big cities in tandem with an equal gradual forgetting of the bigness of, say, Cleveland and Pittsburgh. This because while folkshas never been a proper regionalism after the fashion of youse or y’all, it has always been more typically used by, and in reference to, country people than city people; and until quite recently, Southerners were never thought of as city people–and even now that they are, they have not so much conformed to the old folkways of city-dwelling as ruralized them.
Source: AFF Doublethink Online | Joseph Hammond
Source: AFF Doublethink Online | Emma Elliott Freire