Americanisms: Is folks a term of resistance?

One of the fun (and frustrating) things about moving between countries and cultures is discovering that things are done differently than you have come to expect. This is particularly true of language. Some of it is local dialect – every time people in Philly say water (pronounced wuder, or wooder) I cant help but smile. Some of it is spelling (the famous aluminium or aluminum discussion) and some of it is just different words for similar things; do you say car boot or trunk? And in my house the biscuit/cookie & muffin/cupcake discussions can take epic proportions.

But there is one word that fascinates me and that is Folks. Originally I heard it being used by people of color, but once I recognized it I heard it being used by activists from many communities. Usually when I hear the work folk in english – I think of folk dancing:

Swedish Folk Dancing


As I am not big on folk dancing it doesn’t play an important part in my life. But a more possible reason the term seems unusual is that it is reasonably common in Swedish (same spelling). It refers to people but it also refers to race and, in part, to nation. This is understandable as its etymology is, according to the Online Etymology Dictionary

Old English folc “common people, laity; men; people, nation, tribe; multitude; troop, army,” from Proto-Germanic *folkam (source also of Old Saxon folc, Old Frisian folk, Middle Dutch volc, Dutch volk, Old High German folc, German Volk “people”). Perhaps originally “host of warriors:” Compare Old Norse folk “people,” also “army, detachment;”

Its germanic roots and use in modern german is what makes it a bit jarring. The term Volk has strong connections for me with the Nazi race ideology where the focus on volk was key – and its definition included elements of race, geography, and culture. The idea of volk was used heavily in their propaganda. They spoke of herrenvolk = master race; and volksgemeinschaft = racial community. And so much more.

Naturally, the american use for the term doesn’t come from these roots, and as far as I can tell american nazis seem to favor race over volk/folk. The american use, as far as I can tell, is more connected with family, relatives, relations, and kinfolk (where are your folks from?) and is a word more used in casual conversation (think of sportscasters addressing the crowd -other terms would be too formal). Naturally it is also strongly connected to the rural world where folk music, folk art, and folk medicine stand in contrast with the urban experience.

Aside from its folksy roots and its casual usage, the word folk (with its vaguely unnecessary plural: folks) is being used among activists in settings that are not intended to be folksy or particularly causal. Here is a quote by Heather Cronk of Showing Up for Racial Justice from the transcript from Bitch Media’s episode A Guide to Trump Resistance

Not all white folks are experiencing this election in the same way. So I identify as queer. I come out of LGBTQ organizing. And for a lot of queer folks, especially a lot of trans folks, even if you’re white, especially if you’re queer and trans and poor, you’re experiencing this election and experiencing having these kinds of conversations with friends and family in different ways. So I would never say to folks you have to have this conversation. For a lot of folks, that isn’t safe for a whole lot of different reasons.

Here folk is a group that shares a common interest that may be defined by race/color, but could also be defined by gender/sexuality.

Its difficult to say that the word is being re-appropriated since the germanic volk seems not to have been a strong connotation in American English. But it does seem like the word is evolving to become a central term in activist circles which does make it a marker of resistance to traditional norms of white, cis gender power.

Better insults needed

Sitting on the plane at Boston airport and hoping  it will take off. The delay is because it’s overcast and raining in Philadelphia. This news does not really fit well with Philly’s tough image. 

So I muttered under my breath and realized that none of my insults were things I was comfortable with. All the terms were derogatory to women, gay people, or race. 

Naturally this brought to mind the great quote from Betty White

Why do people say “grow some balls”? Balls are weak and sensitive. If you wanna be tough, grow a vagina. Those things can take a pounding.

But this doesn’t help. I needed an insult to hurl at Philly for not being tough enough to let airplanes land in the rain. And I wanted an insult that didn’t disparage women or gays or that was racist. Betty is awesome, but she wasn’t helping. 

Going back to Shakespeare there were a few tips. From Macbeth:

Go, prick thy face, and over-red thy fear, Thou lily-liver’d boy.

Lily-liver’d that kind of has a ring to it. It rolls nicely off the tongue, but the hyphenation and apostrophe is going to make it difficult when texting. 

Hamlet offered this:

Thou are pigeon-liver’d and lack gall.

It’s a variation on a theme but I guess even Shakespeare couldn’t be totally original. Same texting problem as before. 

Damn! Where can I find a better source of insults? Any recommendations? 

Stephen Fry, Poetry & Accepting Language Development

We are all, more or less, grammar Nazis. There is always going to be something that grates our souls when we hear it or read it. At the same time it is important to keep remembering that language is – and should be – evolving. The most attractive argument for this is put forward in a typographic animation by Matthew Rogers with Stephen Fry reading sections from his essay Don’t Mind Your Language…

The whole essay is really worth a read. The animation is poetic beauty and my favorite section is his retort against those who thing new uses of language are ugly:

It’s only ugly because it’s new and you don’t like it. Ugly in the way Picasso, Stravinsky and Eliot were once thought ugly and before them Monet, Mahler and Baudelaire. Pedants will also claim, with what I am sure is eye-popping insincerity and shameless disingenuousness, that their fight is only for ‘clarity’. This is all very well, but there is no doubt what ‘Five items or less’ means, just as only a dolt can’t tell from the context and from the age and education of the speaker, whether ‘disinterested’ is used in the ‘proper’ sense of non-partisan, or in the ‘improper’ sense of uninterested. No, the claim to be defending language for the sake of clarity almost never, ever holds water.
It’s about using the right words for the right occasion. Not an easy task. It’s also about enjoying the sounds languages make and having fun with them. This is where we have to let other people do what they do.
Addition: More on the same theme WritingorTyping recommended Chillax If it works like a word, just use it by Erin McKean.

Lets eat Grandma

Reading too many papers written by students with poor language skills is melting my brain, and it’s not that I am particularly good at correct use of punctuation…

I just love the intro to Kyle Wiens blogpost: I Won’t Hire People Who Use Poor Grammar. Here’s Why.

If you think an apostrophe was one of the 12 disciples of Jesus, you will never work for me. If you think a semicolon is a regular colon with an identity crisis, I will not hire you. If you scatter commas into a sentence with all the discrimination of a shotgun, you might make it to the foyer before we politely escort you from the building.


Nor do I want to be a language police. Every time I get too serious about this I remind myself of this…

Stephen Fry Kinetic Typography – Language from Matthew Rogers on Vimeo.

The end of Swedish?

Today I did something unusual… I bought a book! Well the book in itself is not unusual but what was different today was the fact that the book was old fashioned analogue – you know… re-used, old dead trees.

When it was launched I was anti-Kindle, in November 2007 I even wrote:

For me it doesn’t matter how fancy schmancy the details are – and Kindle has some impressive details. The dead tree with ink stains still remains my clear favorite.

But eventually I succumbed and bought one by the end of 2010. Almost immediately my reading and purchasing patterns changed drastically – this became very obvious when the book Själens medium: Skrift och subjekt i Nordeuropa omkring 1500 by Götselius was not available in digital format… and did not buy it!

Most of the time this is not a problem as most of my reading is in English. But this has an interesting side-effect: publishers in small language groups seem to think that staying out of the Kindle market is a smart way of maintaining control over their market. But the problem is that this market is diminishing. Given a choice – the Kindle user is almost forced into the a larger language group.

Sure, I was forced to buy a book today but that’s still 15 less than I would have during the same period.

The cost of borrowing

Of course I was naive. I guess if I thought about it I would have known that I was naive. But when I heard that a museum has lent a collection or a work to another museum, I got a warm fuzzy feeling. This was cultural altruism. I know, I know… Naive.

In a fascinating article in The Art Newspaper, the director of Musée Picasso reveals the true cost of borrowing.

Baldassari revealed the museum raised between €1m and €3.5m a year since 2008 from the touring exhibition “Masterpieces from the Picasso Museum”. It has visited eight cities so far, including Madrid, Helsinki and Tokyo. “We have made [in total] €16m,” she said, adding that the museum levied different charges for loans. “The tariffs vary according to the number of works, the team [involved] and the expertise.”

Brings a whole new meaning to the word to borrow. But then I guess art lease would sound a bit to0… mercenary?

How to write (or not)

Miss Cellania has added an amusing list of grammatical rules to her blog. The list is funny but it is also worth remembering:

Prepositions are not words to end sentences with.
And don’t start a sentence with a conjunction.
It is wrong to ever split an infinitive.
Avoid clichés like the plague. (They’re old hat)
Also, always avoid annoying alliteration.
Be more or less specific.
Remarks in brackets (however relevant) are (usually) (but not always) unnecessary.
Also too, never, ever use repetitive redundancies.
No sentence fragments.
Contractions aren’t necessary and shouldn’t be used.
Foreign words and phrases are not apropos.
Do not be redundant; do not use more words than necessary; it’s highly superfluous.
One should NEVER generalize.
Comparisons are as bad as clichés.
Don’t use no double negatives.
Eschew ampersands & abbreviations, etc.
One-word sentences? Eliminate.
Analogies in writing are like feathers on a snake.
The passive voice is to be ignored.
Eliminate commas, that are, not necessary. Parenthetical words however should be enclosed in commas.
Never use a big word when a diminutive one would suffice.
Kill all exclamation points!!!
Use words correctly, irregardless of how others use them.
Understatement is always the absolute best way to put forth earth shaking ideas.
Use the apostrophe in it’s proper place and omit it when its not needed.
Eliminate quotations. As Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “I hate quotations. Tell me what you know.”
If you’ve heard it once, you’ve heard it a thousand times: Resist hyperbole; not one writer in a million can use it correctly.
Puns are for children, not groan readers.
Go around the barn at high noon to avoid colloquialisms.
Even if a mixed metaphor sings, it should be derailed.
Who needs rhetorical questions?
Exaggeration is a billion times worse than understatement.

Access to Language

Erin McKean writes an interesting article in the Boston Globe about the creation and use of new words and the unfounded fear of criticism some of the users of these newisms have.

Whenever I see “not a real word” used to stigmatize what is (usually) a perfectly cromulent word, I wonder why the writer felt the need to hang a big sign reading “I am not confident about my writing” on it. What do they imagine the penalty is for using an “unreal” word? A ticket from the Dictionary Police? The revocation (as the joke goes) of your poetic license? A public shaming by William Safire? The irony is that most of these words, without the disclaimer, would pass unnoticed by the majority of readers.

So I get he impulse not to be beaten up and accused of having a shitty vocabulary but really I agree with McKean – who cares! It’s the communication that counts. But never forget who your audience is.

When discussing Free, Open & Propriatary software I am often inclined to talk about language as being a product which we are all free to use, borrow, steal, plagiarise, remix to suit or own needs. In most cases we use and abuse our language to achieve a communicative purpose rather than to appease a dominant system of governance. Naturally some people will argue that there are rules to language and these rules are notto be toyed with.

This is not always so and there have been languages which have been firmly in the control of certain power groups. In this way langauges were used as a method of controlling the users, and often the non-users.

The languages such as Sanskrit, Greek and Latin have all been used as exclusive devices. In many languages  correct vocabulary, right dialect and proper enunciation of words have been used to identify and control insider and outsider groups. Basically if you did not talk like one of us – then you were not one of us. It is amazing to see how such a fundamental social infrastructure can be used to keep groups in check.

Added to this is the topic of language as a form of control in the sense that it controls what we are able to say and communicate to others. If you cannot articulate a word for freedom (as in liberty) and the people you talk to cannot comprehend such a word – then will the idea cease to exist? George Orwell explored this in 1984. Today technology has created two different impulses. Old formal language is being controlled by what is permitted grammar and vocabulary in the spell-check program. An opposite development is the growth of new languages and forms of language (for example slang) online.

This is something I have been kicking around for a long time but I need to develop it much further.