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Edit: Comments so far have focused on the speech of politicians. While this discussion is interesting, and desired when relevant, I am more concerned with use in activist communities. I believe the connotation is different: unlike politicians, these people are not trying to sound more 'folksy' or 'of the people'.

I often hear folk used in leftist and activist communities. The word choice seems ideologically motivated, a more politically correct synonym for people — just as one would say 'differently-abled' instead of 'disabled' or 'latina' instead of 'hispanic' — but I can't determine any need for the substitution. Is people offensive? The most common use is in 'black folk', but also 'white folk', 'brown folk', 'queer folk', etc.

My fundamental question is this: Why is folk used more often in activist communities?

I recognize that I don't have hard evidence to demonstrate the truth of the phenomenon. I'm not sure what evidence I could provide. So let's all play together and assume it is true?

I can imagine two answers to this question.

  1. Folk is a politically correct substitute for people. Why, then, is people offensive, and folk not?
  2. The word choice is not ideologically but historically motivated. Folk is historically common in the black community. As non-black people interact with black vocabulary, they assimilate (either naturally, or because of a false believe in #1). As listening-oriented black/non-black interaction is more common in activist spaces, the use of folk has spread quickest in activist communities.

These are, however, simply unfounded hypotheses.

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    Folks vs people: Recently I was amused to hear Jon Stewart express bewilderment at George Bush’s continued use of the word folks in inappropriate contexts. This is one of many of the President’s peculiarities of speech that has bothered me for some time. Stewart was referring to this remark in the President’s July 4 speech: "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.” dailywritingtips.com/folks-versus-people – user66974 Jul 13 '16 at 18:50
  • Interesting point. Almost the opposite phenomenon here. – Unrelated Jul 13 '16 at 18:52
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    "People" got its negative connotation in race relations by speakers saying "you people" (e.g., "You people are always..."). The phrase "you people" was and is perceived as being racist and objectifying. As a result, in any kind of argument about race or bigotry, it has become kind of a thing for those who feel racially prejudiced against to protest the first time someone says "people" by saying, "People?! People?!" as if the word is inherently racist even without the "you" beforehand. As a result, politicians and the PC have veered from using "people" altogether, thus "folks." – Benjamin Harman Jul 13 '16 at 19:13
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    As in @Josh61 link stated Folks generally suggests a certain warmth and “down home” flavor. Which is probably something activist communities go for. Because they need that sense of belonging together. – Helmar Jul 13 '16 at 19:15
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    One interesting early example of folk as folk is W.E.B. Du Bois's The Souls of Black Folk (1903), an examination of the social, political, and spiritual condition of black Americans at the beginning of the twentieth century. According the Wikipedia article on Du Bois, he was born in Massachusetts and his parents' families were Northerners going back at least two generations. But he attended college in Tennessee for three years (before attending Harvard), so he did have direct experience of contemporaneous Southern black English. – Sven Yargs Jul 15 '16 at 16:56
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A POB issue, but the following extract from the New York Times offers some good points:

Folks is a homogeneous social group as contrasted with the individual or with a selected class,” according to Webster. It originated from the Old English “folc,” or “people,” and expanded in the 19th century to incorporate the concept of “folklore,” which included a sense of passing along a common narrative.

Early usage of "folks" in politics:

“Folks” made occasional political appearances in the early 20th century, often in the form of “just folks” — “just” underscoring the attempt at humility. In a Times account of President Warren G. Harding’s 1923 trip to Denver, he was commended for his accessible manner. “He was ‘just folks’ and people liked his ways,” The Times concluded. A clip from 1932 described F.D.R.’s campaigning in New York for the future governor Herbert Lehman. “All was neighborly, homely, informal; from dairy farmer to governor, from garden trickster to lieutenant governor,” The Times reported. “Everybody was just folks.”

More recent usages and current connotation of "folks":

In recent decades, “folks” has become more of a politician’s crutch. As Favreau noted, it solves the problem of how best to refer to any collection, assembly or generic mass.

Alternatives abound but can be problematic:

“The American people” was an old standby, as in “the American people are sick and tired of so-and-so.” But this can seem a little presumptuous, especially as the population has grown more diverse, globalized and splintered. “The People” (as in “power to the people” or “we the people”) enjoyed an uprising in the ’60s and ’70s. Backlash ensued: “Unfortunately, I Do Not Identify With the People,” said a headline over a 1972 Times column by Kathryn R. Bloom. “The People is the little guy. The People is honest. Decent. Sincere. Simple, even. The People is fed up.”

The People — evidenced by its capitalization — was at least meant to be a term of collective empowerment. The People is an awesome, singular force; as opposed to “the little guy,” which was Harry Truman’s favorite, or the “common man,” preferred by F.D.R. Today, neither would suit the inflated self-involvement of baby-boomers, let alone millennials.

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    Is that last paragraph you or is the whole block quoted text one source? – Unrelated Jul 13 '16 at 19:29

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