Folks versus People

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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.”

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19 thoughts on “Folks versus People”

  1. “The word folk can refer to a group of people related in some way, either by blood or by occupation.”

    Then, I would say that Bush used it correctly. ;-).

  2. Jay,
    Bush called them “folks,” not “folk.”

    I suppose he could say “killer folk” as one might say “farmer folk” or “fisher folk,” but the idiom would still be off since “folk” is by established usage a “friendly” word. Such a phrase as “killer folk: could be used ironically, I guess.

  3. Thanks for the Daily Writing Tips – I recommend them to all those who will listen.

    On my people’: ‘the expression “my people” seems to mean “people who work for me” or “people who look out for my interests.” ‘ I think it also refers to one’s own racial or ethnic group as in ‘my people have lived here for 10 000 years’.

  4. Nice to know the difference as I’ve used the word “folk” or “folks” a number of times in the novel I’m writing. Sad to say that in either case I used it incorrectly.

    People it is then.

    Thanks for the tip. 🙂

  5. Matt, I think English has a very large vocabulary so that one could be unique without being unidiomatic :).

  6. Interesting info, but some bloggers like to write in a certain style to make them seem more unique, you could call it ‘silly’ or ‘wrong’ but hey.

  7. folk: people in general (often used in the plural); “they’re just country folk”; “folks around here drink moonshine”; “the common people determine the group character and preserve its customs from one generation to the next”

    People: In general, the English word people refers to a specific group of humans, or to persons in a general sense.

  8. I don’t used the word “folks” very often but growing up in the South (Louisiana—I am not Cajun.) I have heard “folks” used exactly the way that President Bush using it. I never thought about it being different than people. President Bush, growing up in Texas, probably heard it used that way all of his life, just as I have. Thanks for correcting my English. It is a Southern thing.

  9. I find Bush’s use not only acceptable, but better than using “people.”

    Politically, it’s just the right expression. Our society is becoming split between two groups.

    1. Those who’re so afraid of terrorism they pander to it. This would include most of the news media, which typically calls them ‘militants,’ as if they simply had a fascination with carrying weapons.

    2. Those who’re devoting too much attention to defeating what is more a nuisance than the sort of life-as-we-know it threat the old USSR offered with its thousand of nuclear weapons.

    “Folks” cuts terrorists down to size, splitting the difference between “people” and demonization. It puts them on the same level with the old racists who tossed rocks through black church windows or drove through black neighborhoods blowing their horns. Terrorism, whether by the Klan or Islamists, is the ideology of losers.

    And indeed, it became obvious that segregation was ending in the late 1950s when black neighborhoods quit hiding in their homes when the Klan rode through and stood in their yards laughing at the spectacle.

    –Mike Perry
    Editor of Eugenics and Other Evils by G. K. Chesterton

  10. Mike-

    I wish you would offer a bit more analysis of exactly how using “folks” “cuts terrorists down to size.” I can see how one might use it ironically, drawing on the connotation of “folks” as a group of people with whom one has some kind of kinship, or at least commonality, to suggest that terrorists are violating the rules of decency that connect “folks” in kinship or commonality. In other words, one might call them “folks” to remind the listener that they don’t behave at all like “folks” should. I wouldn’t call that “cutting terrorists down to size,” so much as using irony to deliver a subtle moral rebuke. That doesn’t get me to your analogy with laughing at Klansmen, though.

    Also, notice that I use “one” instead of Bush. This is because I’m skeptical that someone of Bush’s linguistic ineptitude would deploy such subtleties, especially given his history of demonizing terrorists, and his distaste for “splitting the difference” with anything, including niceties of word choice.

  11. Dear John Pachecus,

    I found it funny that you looked up the actual definition of people to help make your point but you just used examples of how some people might use the word folk.

    The ACTUAL definition of folk is- a group of kinderd people forming a nation.

    But this is all besides the point, how can you read the quote above about AL QAEDA and get so wrapped up that he used the word folks and write a article about it? I bet you didnt even hear the rest of the speech.. Oh my “people”, come on!

  12. Side quesiton: Shouldn’t it be “folks who” rather than “folks that”? This is one of my pet peeves – those who use “that” after personal pronouns. What’s the rule here?

  13. Gaylon,
    While “which” may be used only for nonhuman antecedents: “the house which is on the market” and never people “the man which walked through the door,” “that” may be used with either human or nonhuman antecedents. I usually use “who,” but I feel that it’s a stylistic choice. Sometimes “that” seems preferable to me.

  14. Folks are always people, but people are not always folks. You never need to use the word folks, but you have to use the word people. You can say “follow me folks”, but you would never say there are 6 folks in a room.

  15. Mr. Obama constantly uses the word “folks”. It rubs me the wrong way. It seems to me that he is using it as an insult, albeit a subtle one, by always referring to the citizenship of the country he ‘leads’ not as people, but the commoner folks.

  16. First, a question: Why do some use folk as plural?

    Second, Al Qaeda, who attacked us on 9/11 do share a kinship with those responsible for the car bombings. Hence folks is precisely correct.
    While we are discussing things, perhaps it might be wise to question what Jon Stewart’s real name is? Or why he thought he needed to change it.

  17. You are all exposing your regional prejudices. The way George Bush uses the word “folk” is perfectly exceptable in much of the the South and the southern thirds of Illinois, Indiana, and Ohio.

    Eric Brown

  18. I hear it a lot from politicians. I also know people who say not to trust someone who uses that word. Sounds disingenuous coming from a young millennial vs. an old grandpa IMHO but there are worse ways to destroy the language.

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