Folk Festival

August 2, 2014
Posted by Jay Livingston

Folks used to be simple, ordinary people. They were the folks of folk music – not urban and certainly not urbane.  Folks were down-homey – the folks who live in my hometown. Or folks were literally homey; they were family – parents – as in  “We’re spending the holidays with my folks.”

One of these paintings of has folks in it, the other has just people.

Folks do not wear neckties or high heels.

That was then (“Saying Grace” is from 1951, “Nighthawks” 1942).  Now it seems that anyone can be folks.

Here are two of the folks we tortured.

Abu Zubaydah, waterboarded 83 times, and Khalid Sheikh Muhammed, 183 times. 

I don’t think that Obama planned to use the word folks rather than people. That’s just the way it came out.  He obviously did plan to use the word torture. He wasn’t going use bureaucratic language to paper over what has been clear to everybody. He wasn’t going to do a Dick Cheney and say something like, “We may have used enhanced interrogation techniques on known terrorists.”  Obama was speaking plainly, and it doesn’t get much plainer than just plain folks.

It’s not just Obama. Bush too used folks in the same way and for the same people.

We’re going to get the folks who did this. [Sept. 11, 2001]

[The US is engaged in] a war against an extremist group of folks, bound together by an ideology, willing to use terrorism to achieve their objectives.

Other public figures are less folksy.  I doubt that John Kerry or Mitt Romney or Paul Ryan would use the term so freely. Nor would Hillary; Bill didn’t.  But the trend is general, as Google Ngrams data from books shows.

(Click on the graph for a larger view.)

Through the 1940s and 50s, folks seemed to go out of fashion.  Then in the 80s, folks began to come back into public discourse.  It’s very tempting to jump from this one bit of data on linguistic trends to a broad characterization of the changing American psyche, but I’ll leave that for other folks.

1 comment:

arnie said...

Norman Rockwell's painting of "down-homey folks" and Edward Hopper's painting of "just people" both depict what we fondly refer to as the "good old days!"

Dylan said it rather distinctly that the times they are a changin' - and in this post 9/11 era indeed they have.