How a once-friendly, neighborly word—”folks”—became a quiet sort of insult.
By Liesl Schillinger
Illustration by Keetra Dean Dixon
Thirty-five years ago, when the late wordsmith William Safire — a former Nixon speechwriter, and the coiner of the phrase “nattering nabobs of negativism” — began writing “On Language,” a New York Times Magazine column about the changing currents of American speech, he opened with the simple salutation “How do you do.” (Note the lack of question mark, which was his initial, throat-clearing point.) In homage I had wanted to begin this column, “News of the Word,” with the phrase; but in intervening decades, the expression “How do you do” has fallen out of favor, replaced by the more perfunctory “Nice to meet you,” or the slangy “How ya doin’?” or “How’s it goin’?” If you are determined to hear someone say “How do you do,” your best bet is to watch the film My Fair Lady — in which Audrey Hepburn (as Eliza Doolittle) says it repeatedly, with a mannered flourish. These days, though, there is no longer one de rigueur stock phrase of introduction. And so, I’ll just begin, “Hi, folks.”
Question: What do I mean by “folks”?
The word “folks” used to have a bonhomous, backslapping, affectionate quality in this country; “folks” were ordinary people like you and me, whom we recognized as familiar, or even familial. One entry in my deskside American Heritage Dictionary defines “folks” as: “The members of one’s family or childhood household; relatives”; another explains that, once the word “folks” moves beyond that narrow circle, it tends to latch on to a descriptive phrase — rich folks, poor folks, black folks, white folks, “old folks, just plain folks, country folks” — to specify the particular type of folksiness implied. Lately, though, the usage of this word has been shifting, and the change has come from the White House — transforming the “folks” of yesteryear into a complex and alien entourage whom you’d be unhappy to bump into at a backyard barbecue.
In September, when President Obama sat with the reporter Steve Kroft of 60 Minutes to discuss the terrorist groups ISIS (which he calls ISIL)and Khorasan, he warned that “those folks could kill Americans” and urged “Arab and Muslim leaders to say very clearly, ‘These folks do not represent us.’” Another group of folks, the Syrian rebel fighters whom the United States had decided not to arm, early in that country’s civil war, seemed to elicit more fellow feeling, though President Obama refuted the “mythology” that “if we had given those folks some guns two and a half years ago, that Syria would be fine.” Back in August, the President had regretted the excesses of the CIA toward yet another group in the aftermath of 9/11, when he said, “We tortured some folks”; while, several years before, he had denounced domestic fearmongers who demonized his healthcare plan, because “some of the same folks who are spreading these tall tales have fought against Medicare in the past.” The “folks” President Obama speaks of often have a negative or alien aura, a quality of “them,” not “us.” They are terrorists or armed militants, hard-hearted ideologues or benighted unfortunates. This is new.
When President Clinton used the word “folks” in the ’90s, during State of the Union addresses, stump speeches, and NAFTA talks, he did so in the time-honored, colloquial manner, making “folks” synonymous with “people” but more personal; and that’s still how he uses the word 20 years on: to show his commonality with and sympathy for his audience. In “A Place Called Hope,” the speech in which he accepted the Democratic nomination for the presidency in 1992, he suggested that all Americans were just folks: “There is no them; there is only us.” So, when I say, “Hi, folks,” I revert to the traditional, inclusive spirit of the word; “us,” not “them.” From this group, however, I would like to exclude gentlemen, who lately have taken on a markedly ungentlemanly character.
When a disturbed Iraq war veteran named Omar Gonzalez scaled the White House fence last month and sprinted deep into the executive mansion, some journalists conferred the title of gentleman upon him. “There’s the gentleman, you see him running across the White House lawn,” said José Díaz-Balart on MSNBC, as he relayed news of the home invasion. Gonzalez was “the same gentleman who, twice in months prior, posed a direct threat to the White House,” wrote the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, explaining that, in July, “after a high-speed chase, he was found with 11 guns and a map,” while in August, he had appeared in front of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue with a hatchet. The September intruder should not be confused with the Ferguson Missouri policeman Darren Wilson, whose boss, Police Chief Tom Jackson, described him as “nice, respectable, and well-mannered, a gentleman” after he shot and killed an unarmed man named Michael Brown. Commentators often bemoan the decline of civility in public discourse, but the excessive rise of misplaced civility is just as good a source for consternation.
Historically, Americans have preferred to be called gentlemen, rather than simply folks, whenever possible. When Frances Trollope, mother of the British novelist Anthony Trollope, moved from England to Tennessee and Ohio in 1827, this preference was already well-established. In her scathing, humorous accounts of this country’s rough-and-ready language and customs, Domestic Manners of the Americans, which she published upon her return to England for the entertainment of her countrymen, she wrote with patronizing amusement that she found “draymen, butcher’s boys and the labourers on the canal” all were called “gentlemen” in these parts. Her own definition hewed closer to the definition that you’ll still find in the American Heritage Dictionary today: “A man of gentle or noble birth or superior social position.”
We Americans have little patience for such snobbish exclusiveness. To our ears, her criticisms have an unladylike ring (though Mark Twain applauded her bile, and said, “She was merely telling the truth and this indignant nation knew it”).
So — should you call a menacing stranger with a hatchet, gun, or automatic weapon in his hands a gentleman? Sometimes yes, sometimes no; you can’t always be sure, but most folks will know the difference when they see it.
Please email suggestions for turns of phrase or words you would like to see explored in the next News of the Word to Liesl Schillinger.