When I was watching the second presidential debate, did I notice Romney's mention of "binders of women"? Sure, I did. Did I notice that President Obama finally mentioned Romney's 47 percent comment? You bet I did.
But you know what else I noticed? President Obama uses the word "folks" often, maybe too often. He used the word "folks" 17 times in total. Romney used it three times; moderator Candy Crowley used it five.
For most of his gun violence speech, Obama used the word "people" (seven times, to be exact). However, when discussing his strategy, he said he would attempt to get "automatic weapons that kill [here, he faltered momentarily] folks in amazing numbers out of the hands of criminals and the mentally ill."
Why does that word seem to undermine what he's saying when discussing such a serious, sensitive topic as gun violence? What comes to mind when we hear the word "folks"?
"Folks" is not exactly a direct synonym to "people" because of the connotation that comes with it. "People" can be used in any context, but the word "folks" indicates a certain warmth and intimacy, a kind of familiarity.
Why does it have this familiarity? Well, "folks" is derived from the Old English "folc," meaning "common people" "Folks" eventually became colloquialized in English, but was considered inelegant by the beginning of the 19th century (probably because it assumes such familiarity).
It came back into use in academia in 1846, through William J. Thoms's invention of the word "folklore." This word brought back the idea that "folk" connotes "the common people," in this case, "those whose culture is handed down orally."
Eventually "folk" was used to refer to many different kinds of culture, such as "folk songs," "folk dance," "folk art."
"People," on the other hand, has, as Daily Writing Tips points out, "the sense of the public, all of the people as a political entity." Take, for example, "the American people," a commonly used phrase when politicians are speaking about Americans.
In the context of politics, the word "people" is much more formal than the colloquial "folks."
President Barack Obama was born in Honolulu, Hawaii, and so was I. My stepmom and her whole family are from there. I've always thought of the people in Hawaii as being extremely friendly. Everyone says "Aloha." Everyone lets you in when you're trying to change lanes. Everyone "Shakkas" one another.
Many people who live there also use the word "folks" instead of "people." Instead of "you guys" or "you all" (I'll get to "y'all" in a later post), they use "you folks."
This might explain why President Obama seems particularly partial to the word "folks."
"Folks" is one of the friendliest way you can say "people." But perhaps because it's so darn friendly, it also sounds flippant when discussing something as serious as gun violence.
At the point in the gun violence debate that Obama uses the word "folks," one can almost tell that he has been advised NOT to during that portion. He falters right before he says the word, and formerly in his gun violence speech, he has switched to the word "people," which he hardly ever uses.
Interestingly, Obama uses the word "folks" the MOST number of times when he is discussing illegal immigration and the Libya assassinations (four times for each discussion). While discussing illegal immigration, he mentions that we should deport "folks who are criminals, gang bangers, people who are hurting the community" and not deport "folks who are here just because they're
trying to figure out how to feed their families."
When discussing Libya and the U.S. diplomats who were killed there, Obama mentions that "I know those folks and I know their families. So nobody is more concerned about their safety and security than I am."
One could understand why he would want to assume familiarity with the U.S. diplomats' families by using a colloquialism, but what about the foreign criminals? Does it not seem odd that he refers to "criminals, gang bangers, people who are trying to hurt the community" as "folks"?
This is certainly not the first time that President Obama has used the word "folks" a lot, either. If you just do a simple Google search for this word in his campaign event speeches, it comes up a whopping 156 times.
President Obama is not the only President who has used the word "folks" inappropriately. George W. Bush is another who has been criticized for it .
On July 4, 2007, at an Independence Day celebration in West Virginia, Bush said, "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."
Bush's comment sounds very similar to Obama's on the killers in Libya: "when folks mess with Americans" and "to make sure folks are held accountable."
Don't get me wrong. I think Obama did extremely well in the second debate - certainly much better than he did in the first one - and I don't necessarily see a problem with using the word "folks." It feels more personal than the word "people" and it's also just part of the culture where Barack Obama grew up. However, I also feel that because of its friendly, colloquial nature, there is both a time and a place to use the word, and Obama misstepped by using it in reference to criminals and killers.
What do you think? Should Obama abandon the word "folks"? Or did you not even notice it when you watched the debate? Let me know in the comments!
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