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Lately, I've been noticing a lot of people using folks (sometimes spelled folx) instead of people. This seems especially prevalent among left-leaning sources that pride themselves on inclusion.

Some examples:

This newly widespread usage of folks seems unusual given that the word until recently was seen in a fairly negative light. Both President Obama and President Bush were criticized for using it in speeches on serious topics, and it was typically dismissed as too informal or colloquial. I feel like it also was associated more with Southern redneck stereotypes (much like ain't and y'all) rather than being "mainstream."

One reason I've seen for the usage of folks is to replace guys as a gender-neutral term for a group of people. An Atlantic article, "The Problem with 'Hey Guys'", describes people consciously choosing to replace guys with the gender-neutral folks (it also mentions y'all), and says that folks is preferable to people because people is "too often pushy and impersonal."

However, this is just in the context of using it as a second-person plural pronoun. I can see how addressing a group as "you people" would be frowned upon, given the negative implications of that term, but many of the recent uses of folks do not use it as a form of address, but rather as a third-person replacement of "people." (All three of the examples I cited above use it this way.) In these instances, is there any different connotation in using folks instead of people?

Has folks gained a connotation that makes it a more inclusive gender-neutral term for people than people?

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    I think your examples are using it specifically because it is more informal than people. Neither one is more inclusive or more gender-neutral, as far as I know. But people would definitely give your examples a more formal register, which the writers might not have wnated.
    – The Photon
    Jan 22 '20 at 5:57
  • Languages change. That's what they do. The only language that doesn't change is a dead language, and those change too. One type of change is vocabulary: denotation, connotation, and popularity change with time, usually for no particular reason. Sometimes there are identifiable pressures (inmigration, art, sociopolitical trends, etc.), but even when these are identifiable, the result would have been impossible to predict. Folk(s) is on the rise. Maybe bell bottoms will be next. Who knows. Jan 22 '20 at 6:21
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    @Mike Graham : Sure - but I think the point of this question is to inquire why this particular change is occurring, when there is already, at least in theory, a logical replacement that would serve the stated purpose of being gender-neutral just as well. Hence I think the other answer, that it is specifically meant to lend a casualizing air, is likely it. "Guys" is a casual term in this usage, "folks" then produces a similarly-casual neutral term. The analogous genderful term from "people" would be "men". Jan 22 '20 at 6:29
  • @The_Sympathizer Sure, which is a question that doesn't really match how languages work. They just change, and despite a lot of just-so stories, we don't know why. Languages are not efficient, they don't change because a change is needed--they just change. Jan 22 '20 at 6:31
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First of all, this is absolutely a usage that is particularly notable within LGBT and social justice communities, and there is definitely some sort of gender connotation. People who do not spend a lot of time in these communities may not be familiar with it. While "folks" may be on the rise in general, it is disproportionately so in these specific contexts, I assure you. This question of the "folks" phenomenon has come up several times among my personal friends, independent of one another.

My personal speculation is that this usage originated with demographically descriptive adjectives ("trans folk/s", "black folk/s") for a couple of reasons. Some phrases, even though absolutely neutral, with demographical references in them, have become latently politically charged in the eyes of out-groups even though there is no specific connotation (such as "black people"). I think the use of "folk/s" is to avoid that phenomenon. In fact, this also allows the speaker to avoid saying something like "these people" referring to a set of specific people, accidentally sounding like they are referring to the entire class the person is in (even though "folks" isn't any more specific than "people" in this regard-- "persons" is rarely used in speech-- there is not going to be the hair-trigger association that something like "these people" has). Also consider use in a greeting: "Hey people!" sounds blunt and almost aggressive to some. I'm not able to explain why, but I know that it can and does offend certain people. Almost like the speaker is a teacher yelling for people's attention. "Hey folks!" avoids this.

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The OP states confidently in their question

Why is “folks” commonly used as a gender-neutral term for “people” when “people” is already gender-neutral?

The term folks, originally an Old English term used on both sides of the Atlantic, has not seen a recent surge in popularity because it is a better alternative to the gender neutral people, but because it sounds friendlier, and more welcoming than "people".

Two Google Ngram below showing the trends for folks in the American English corpus from 1900 to 2008

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and in the British English corpus from 1900 to 2008

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The former Oxford Dictionaries Online, Lexico, does not mention anything about folks being a friendlier gender-neutral term compared to people.

Lexico
1.1 folks

Used as a friendly form of address to a group of people.

  • ‘meanwhile folks, why not relax and enjoy the atmosphere?’
  • ‘I think we've located another point in our musical journey here, folks.’
  • ‘Mark this day on your calendar, folks, because it is a rare occasion indeed.’
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    But why is it suddenly seen this way when less than 10 years ago, public figures were criticized for using it? My question is about the change in its connotation, not its historical use.
    – Nicole
    Jan 23 '20 at 1:29
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    @Nicole do you think President Trump would be criticized for using "folks" today? I don't. Do you think if Queen Elizabeth were to use it in her Christmas speech, people would notice or care? I think the British would, and it would be in the papers for weeks. The term "folks" is very informal. Fine if you're an ordinary person or someone whose speech is always relaxed and easy going. Not so acceptable if you represent a way of life, the figurehead of a nation, unless you built a reputation for being someone who speaks like a common person.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Jan 23 '20 at 7:13

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