Are Politicians Folking With Us? The overuse of ‘folks’ in today’s political rhetoric
With the 2016 presidential election around the corner and candidates rolling up their sleeves for good old-fashioned town hall talks, there is one word we are bound to hear a lot: folks.
‘Folks’ has become a time honored tradition in politics. A way for stuffy, white, old men to seem a little more, well, folksy.
While there aren’t a lot of studies on politicians’ use of the word, it’s one that has gained notable popularity in the past 30 years. An Oct. 30, 2014, analysis of President Obama’s diction by Buzzfeed found that the Commander-in-Chief used the word at least 348 times during presidential news conferences. That’s 7.3 times per 10,000 words. George W. Bush used it about 2.5 times per 10,000 words during his presidency, and Bill Clinton only once per 10,000 words.
What’s interesting is the number of times folks is used by presidents in news conferences between 1929 and 2014 is minimal until about 1987. Before that the word was rarely used, except for a brief surge during the Johnson administration.
Who Are These Folks?
According to the Oxford English Dictionary, one of the first uses of the word was in the epic poem Beowolf from the 7th century. It was used as term for a people, nation, or race, which seems pretty spot on, right? Politicians are saying, “Hey nation of people, what’s happening?”
But on Aug. 1, 2014, President Obama said, “We tortured some folks.”
Those folks were Al-Qaeda detainees, who were waterboarded, among other things, by the United States at Guantanamo Bay. And that’s not the first time terrorists were called folks. President Bush said in 2006 that, “We are engaged in a war against an extremist group of folks.” Those clearly aren’t the same folks as the ones on the campaign trail in the United States. A terrorist doesn’t belong to one nation or one people or one race. They are the literal anti-folk, if we are to abide by the first definition.
Other definitions have folks defined as “an aggregation of people in relation to a superior” or as “servants, workpeople,” which would be political suicide if used in those connotations. Folks can be used as a word for family, as well, but that’s too intimate for a political setting.
Finally, the OED says folks are “Men, people indefinitely. Also, people of a particular class, which is indicated by an adjective or some attributive phrase.”
A filler noun. Folks a is noun made for an adjective.
Folks In Our Mind
But, at the same time it’s not. It has a character to it in our minds, at least our American minds. That’s partly why it was so jarring when President Obama called terrorists folks.
“As a colloquial expression it conjures up a greater level of authenticity, of warmth, of regular people that can cut across all sorts of demographics,” said Leonard Steinhorn, a former political speechwriter, strategist and professor of communications at American University.
According to Steinhorn, when we hear words like middle-class or lower-class or worker or landlord, any kind of group, they all have connotations. We have a preconceived notion of mothers and farmers and every other noun.
Folks is just a non-offensive way to include everyone.
“It’s a warmer word than ‘people,’ it’s a gender neutral word,” Steinhorn said.
However, some people aren’t thrilled with the word.
Susan Jacoby, scholar and author of The Age of American Unreason, states that folks denies “the seriousness of whatever…is being debated.”
She adds that the use of the word in the political sphere is “symptomatic of the debasement of public speech and inseparable from a more general erosion of American cultural standards.”
She quotes George Orwell in saying that using less serious language blurs the lines between what is serious in our intellect. Instead of our troops dying overseas, there are just some folks dying overseas. Instead of civilians being bombed, it’s folks being hit with boom-boom sticks. At that point, how long before every casualty is just a booboo and every traumatic brain injury becomes a bump on the noggin?
So, it’s a fair question to ask: Has political language been so stylized into Orwellian doublespeak where even a word, like folks, used to describe ourselves has no meaning?
Are Politicians Folking With Us?
Some uses of folks are genuine. We don’t have LBJ here to vouch, but it’s probably safe to say he was using the word because he was a good ol’ boy from Texas and folks is commonly used in the South.
“A lot of politicians, especially Southern politicians use the vernacular,” said Robert Mann, communications professor at Louisiana State University and former communications director for Gov. Kathleen Blanco. “I’m not one that believes it’s all that calculated. In my experience with politics a politician doesn’t consciously say ‘Alright well I’m going to use these words,’” Mann said.
On the other hand, sometimes it is. Mann said when Mitt Romney ran for president in 2012, he tried to take on the local language when visiting Mississippi during the primaries. “I’m learning to say ‘y’all,’ and I like grits. Things, strange things are happening to me,” Romney said. To which most pundits said “no thank you” and proceeded to gag.
But while Romney may not be able to use y’all, but he certainly can wear jeans and say folks, which may or may not be a calculated move.
Steinhorn says there is always a deliberate side to politics when politicians want to connect with people. Even President Obama has been known to drop the “g” at the end of a word and candidates have taken on a twang when visiting the South.
In some cases politicians may be pandering with the way they speak. But as cable news and the internet continue to close distance in the nation, each of those colloquialisms they adopt will be ratted out; Northerners are now able to cringe at a New England blue blood saying “y’all” from the comfort of their own home.
But folks? Folks is safe.
From the Redwood Forest to the New York Isle, folks can still be that meaningless word that goes straight to Americans’ hearts.
Submitted To Rhetorical Tradition
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