‘Folks’ Hero

I love it when President Obama rolls up his sleeves, loosens his tie, and smudges up the Ivy League luster. He starts droppin’ his gs and sets to talkin’ about folks. His predilection for that word, in particular, is deep indeed.

A search on The New York Times Web site for articles in which both Obama and folks appear yields 1,305 hits (in a few of them, the word is used by a person other than the president). The first came from his keynote address at the 2004 Democratic Convention, in which he said: ”Go into any inner-city neighborhood and folks will tell you that government alone can’t teach kids to learn.” And the most recent appeared in December 2, 2011, coverage of his remarks during an appearance with Bill Clinton: “I’ve noticed that some folks on the other side have been quoting President Clinton about it’s a bad idea to raise taxes during tough economic times.”

Not surprisingly, after such intense long exposure, the president’s staff has been infected. A couple of weeks ago, the chief strategist David Axelrod was quoted in the Times as saying about Michelle Obama: “Her mission is to energize folks and give them encouragement to go out and do the work.”

Folks is, of course, a form of folk, a word, derived from Germanic languages, that means people, as a collective entity or some number of individuals. Folks—with the latter meaning—shows up fairly early in both the British Isles and the United States, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. Jonathan Swift wrote in 1710, “I have heard wise folks say, An ill tongue may do much”; in a letter to her husband, President John Adams, Abigail Adams observed, “Some folks say I have gotten very fat.” Subsequently, it acquired a fairly strictly American, folksy (if you’ll pardon the expression) connotation, as seen in the phrase just (or jes) folks, in such songs such as Stephen Foster’s “The Old Folks at Home,” Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein’s “The Folks that Live on the Hill,” and Sly and the Family Stone’s “Everyday People” (with its refrain “different strokes for different folks”), and in Porky Pig’s farewell, “That’s all, folks!”

(The collective singular folk has had its own wild ride, gaining academic and philosophical cachet, mostly as an adjective, in the late 19th century [folklore, folk music, folk hero, folk art, folk dancing]. Its fortunes reversed when the Nazis so enthusiastically embraced the German version, volk—for example, in their term for “master race,” herrenvolk. But that proved a temporary setback, and the Folk Music Revival of the 1950s, which lingers in various forms, permanently took the sting out of the word.)

During the 2008 campaign, candidate Obama’s fondness for folks was highlighted, and implicitly mocked, in a McCain-Palin ad:

Announcer: Who is Barack Obama? The National Journal says he’s the Senate’s most liberal. How extreme. But when pressed, how does he defend himself?

Barack Obama: “They’re not telling the truth. I hate to say that people are lying, but here’s a situation where folks are lying.”

Announcer: Mr. Obama, we all know the truth.

Barack Obama: “Folks are lying. Folks are lying.”

Announcer: Not presidential.

Maybe that could fly in 2008. But at this point, folks is about as presidential as a word can be. Even Mitt Romney seems to think so. A couple of weeks ago the Times quoted him as saying his goal was to restore hope for “folks who grew up believing that if they played by the rules … they would have the chance to build a good life.”

And that’s all, folks.


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