Q: I listen by podcast from Ireland to Pat on WNYC. One Americanism that grates on this side of the pond is the use of “folks” for “people.” I originally thought it was a Bushism, but Obama uses it too. How widespread is this in the US and do any Americans find it grating too?
A: “Folks” is a very old usage in the United States, and it can’t be described as a regionalism since it’s extremely widespread. But we do know that some here find it a bit … folksy (for lack of a better word).
For example, our editor at Random House (who’s a New Yorker) blue-penciled quite a few of the appearances of “folks” in the manuscript of our book Origins of the Specious. He was probably right.
The word’s predecessor, “folk” (originally meaning a people, nation, race, tribe), is extremely old. The Oxford English Dictionary cites written examples dating back to Beowulf, and the word has roots in ancient Germanic tongues.
Since a 10th-century example in the Old English Chronicles, a collection of Anglo-Saxon writing, “folk” has also been used to mean “people” indefinitely.
English speakers began using the plural “folks” that way in the 14th century, and in the 17th century the plural replaced the old form, with the singular “folk” being labeled archaic or dialect.
Though “folks” is considered to have an American flavor today, it was once used on both sides of the Atlantic and carried no taint of the backwoods. Here are some citations from the OED and their dates:
1710, from a letter by Jonathan Swift: “I have heard wise folks say, An ill tongue may do much.”
1727, from A New Account of the East Indies: “There were Folks killed in 1723.” The author, Alexander Hamilton, was a Scottish sea captain, not the American statesman. He used “folks” repeatedly in his writings.
1756, from the journal of Margaret Calderwood, a British diarist and traveler: “I could not speak to the folks and ask questions.”
1774, from a letter by Abigail Adams: “Some folks say I grow very fat.”
1774, from Benjamin Franklin’s Works: “It was the ton with the ministerial folks to abuse them.”
1775, from a letter by Samuel Johnson: “Folks want me to go to Italy.”
1879, from Robert Browning’s dramatic poem Martin Relph: “It was hard to get at the folks in power.”
Today, the OED says, “folks” in the sense of people in general is chiefly colloquial (that is, more common in speech than in writing), and has been superseded in more formal usage by the word “people.”
The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) calls the usage “informal.” But Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) has no reservations about it.
On the other hand, the OED has no objections to the use of the word to mean “one’s family, parents, children, relatives,” and neither does Merriam-Webster’s.
But American Heritage says “folks” in the sense of one’s family, particularly one’s parents, is informal.
None of the three dictionaries object to the use of “folks” to mean people of a specified kind, as in “city folks,” “old folks,” “plain folks,” and so on.
When Pat was growing up in Iowa, it was usual and even expected that one referred to one’s parents as “my folks”; if Pat’s parents or aunts and uncles made reference to “the folks” in their conversations, they always meant her grandparents.
For instance, Pat’s mother might announce, “I’m worried about the folks,” meaning her parents.
Or Pat’s sister might say, “I’m skipping school, but don’t tell the folks,” referring to her parents.
Or a friend might say, “My folks are driving me nuts,” meaning her mom and dad.
This was an everyday usage for Pat and her family. But then, as Pat puts it, “we were just plain folks.”
Sorry if you find this answer grating!