Mark Leibovich of the New York Times recently explored the popularity of the term “folks” as the nomenclature preferred by politicians when referring to groups of people. And he notes the origins of the word as coming from the old English “folc” meaning … people.
Leibovich goes on to suggest that “folks” can mean anyone or no one, while at the same time serving as a proxy for kinship or shared membership. For political usage he finds wanting the terms “The American people” “The People” “the little guy” the “common man” and the newfangled “Everyday Americans.”
Before becoming a recovering politician myself, I often used the term folks. I would have loved to use “y’all” but that term carries its own cultural baggage and it didn’t sound quite right coming from a Vermonter, never mind a transplant from New Jersey.
But “folks” is apparently the word of the day as the next campaign season gets under way. It’s also a word that reminds me of the Grateful Dead, especially as the Fourth of July holiday approaches.
After 50 years of playing music, the reconstituted Dead (including Vermont’s own Trey Anastasio) will be performing what’s being billed as their “Fare Thee Well” final concerts in Chicago over Independence Day weekend.
In Chicago the Dead are bound to play the classic “U.S. Blues” – a song that, like the term folks, speaks to our degree of interconnectedness as a people, despite our differences on the surface. “Shake the hand that shook the hand of P.T. Barnum and Charlie Chan” is a reminder that we are often, especially in Vermont, only one degree of separation from someone else.
And even though the U.S. Constitution was written several years after independence, all this talk about folks and the 4th reminds me of its famous preamble wherein it states “We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union….”
Two hundred plus years later, we may never actually achieve perfection, but we’re still inching toward that ideal - despite the recent spate of racially complicated tragedies. Certainly we should continue to strive for a nation where all folks will be treated equally, both by the law and by each other. So this 4th of July, I hope we’ll remember that all folks in the U.S. are united under a single flag.
And who knows… maybe we’ll even be inspired by the Grateful Dead to “Wave that flag, wave it wide and high. Summertime done, come and gone, my, oh, my.”