Recently I was amused to hear Jon Stewart express bewilderment at George Bush’s continued use of the word folks in inappropriate contexts. This is one of many of the President’s peculiarities of speech that has bothered me for some time. Stewart was referring to this remark in the President’s July 4 speech:
Many of the spectacular car bombings and killings you see are as a result of al Qaeda — the very same folks that attacked us on September the 11th.”
Folks is not–at least it hasn’t been since Chaucer’s time–an exact synonym for people. Whereas people is a standard word that may be used in any context, folks is a colloquialism with definite connotations.
Folks generally suggests a certain warmth and “down home” flavor. Just as kids is not the most appropriate word to use when talking about young people who have robbed a store and beaten its owner, folks is probably not the best word to use when referring to people who go around blowing up shoppers at the local market or mourners at a funeral.
The word folk can refer to a group of people related in some way, either by blood or by occupation. For example, one can speak of “farmer folk” as well as “the German folk.” When used to refer to members of a nation, folk usually carries the connotation of “the common people.” Folklore is the study or body of stories and beliefs of the “common” people. Likewise folk music is less sophisticated than classical or pop.
The adjective folksy implies the relaxed, informal behavior and speech associated with rural people. President Bush, for example, wins many of his supporters by projecting a folksy Texas image that belies his expensive education at an Andover prep school and at Yale and Harvard universities.
The word people can mean something other than “human beings in general.” In expressions like the motto “the People rule,” people has the sense of the public, all of the people as a political entity. The phrase “you people” is sometimes used to lump people for criticism, as in “You people don’t know what you’re talking about!” or even simply “You people!”
Small mythical humanoid creatures, like leprechauns, may be called either “the Little People” or “the Little Folk.”
In addition to being the most usual noun for human beings considered collectively, people can also be used as a verb meaning “to populate” or “give birth to more human beings”: According to the Hebrew Book of Genesis, Adam and Eve peopled the earth with their descendants.
Unlike “my folks” which means “my family members,” the expression “my people” seems to mean “people who work for me” or “people who look out for my interests.”
Only time will tell what finally happens with folks. Heard frequently enough, nonstandard usage comes to sound “right.”