Something I’ve noticed in American discourse in recent years, from statements by scientists to speeches by politicians and penetrating news media and commercial messages, is a decided shift away from formality, not only with reference to the citizens of the United States but also with reference to residents and citizens of countries world-wide. In statements by scientists (and reports of same to the public), “humans” or “human beings” have become “people.” A certain substance, for example, may be “toxic to both domestic pets and people.” Formerly, we would have been told the substance was “toxic to humans.” Does “people” sound more immediate, more personal?
At the same time, in other contexts, “people” have morphed into “folks.” We are still “the American people,” but when the national adjective is dropped, and especially when reference is made to groups of citizens, we become “folks.” A more casual, folksier term? Does “Folks are hurting” bring the pain into sharper focus than “People are hurting”?
What do you think?
(The increasing informality in public utterances was preceded by a long trend toward familiarity in other situations. Bank tellers and receptionists in medical offices have been addressing customers and patients by first names, regardless of age, for quite a while now, although I’ve noticed that the more wealthy depositors sometimes escape familiarity. As for the disrespect some of us feel in our doctors’ offices (in general, doctors still expect to be called “Doctor”), that is often explained away by confidentiality requirements — supposedly, calling us by our first names protects our privacy in the waiting room better than if we were addressed more formally — but which came first, HIPAA or first-name-calling? And how would our privacy be threatened if we are called Mr. or Mrs. in the examining room? Waiters and waitresses don’t usually know the first names of diners, unless they are regulars, and in restaurants it is staff, not customers, who are reduced to their first names. “I’m Wendy, and I’ll be your server.” Are we still kings and queens, with personal servants, when we go out to eat? Is that how we’re supposed to feel?)
Does the general trend in public statements signal some underlying intent? If so, what could it be?
Are we supposed to feel that science and government are not distant powers but groups of “people”/“folks" close to us, wanting to work with us? Is the newer language an attempt to bridge a gap in trust?
Or, on a darker interpretation, are we being talked down to, made smaller, when we are called “folks”? Is an attempt being made to control us better?
— Or is neither of these conclusions correct? Do both read too much into simple changes in language?
Whatever the original intent, if original intent there was (and how would we ever know?), I suspect the spread of the new usages is a simple matter of human beings/people/folks following trend leaders. We hear the new way of speaking over and over and gradually, without reflection, adopt it in our own speech.
What do you think? Have you noticed the trend? Do you read anything at all into it?