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?

  • 3
    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 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. – Mike Graham Jan 22 at 6:21
  • @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". – The_Sympathizer Jan 22 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. – Mike Graham Jan 22 at 6:31

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

enter image description here

and in the British English corpus from 1900 to 2008

enter image description here

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

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.’
  • 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 at 1:29
  • @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 at 7:13

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.