In the city of Chicago, a multitude of gangs has divided itself into two clusters, each calling itself a nation. According to a report on the evening news not long ago, the Folks Nation and the People Nation are at war, killing each other in turf fights.
Gang specialists in the Chicago police say you can tell the Folks people and the People people apart in this way: Folks wear everything to the right: ball caps, shoelaces, belt buckles. And People wear everything to the left.
When I heard this, I thought immediately of my friend Harry who, if he wore a ball cap at all, would turn the bill to the left.
Harry is a people person. By this I do not mean that Harry is warm and approachable, although he is that. It is that when Harry hears someone use "folks" as a synonym for "people" in some kind of misguided attempt to convey intimacy or informality, it grates on his sensibilities like nothing else.
"I know people will dismiss this as the complaining of a fussy pedant," said Harry. "But in its strictest sense, folks means relations, loved ones. Which is why it sounds particularly terrible when it is used as a generic term for people. It deprives the word of its real meaning.
"My wife and I went to a new restaurant, and I can't tell you anything about the food because the waiter said, 'Would you folks like me to check your coats?' And there went my appetite.
"I don't trust people who misuse the word 'folks.' "
Language is Harry's life and his business. His wife, Liliane, is French, from Alsace, and he has spent the 32 years of his married life traveling back and forth to her homeland and mixing English, German and French.
He is by education and inclination a librarian, for whom books hold a genuine place of reverence. His house, which appears to have been designed as much around those books as it was around its place on Plum Creek in Anne Arundel County, is filled with them.
"Part of it, I suppose, is that I am a pack rat," says Harry. "But also, these books remind me of events, of people."
For as long as he can remember, Harry wanted to be a librarian. Educated at Ivy League schools, he helped create the library at the college from which he retired in 1993 after 32 years.
"I find well-made books beautiful and a pleasure to handle," says Harry. And he likes nothing better than to settle a dispute with the right reference book.
Which brings us back to folks and people. The preferred definition for folks is kin, relations or loved ones. Any definition that sanctions folks as a synonym for people is a record of the word's corruption, not of its proper use, Harry says.
"It reminds me of the sideshow barker who shouts, 'Step right up, folks.' It is an attempt at familiarity, and it reeks of insincerity."
He recalls a radio broadcaster who reported "29 folks attended the meeting," and a headline in a newspaper about "folks" avoiding a certain intersection. "In a headline?" says Harry, incredulous.
"It is even more inexcusable in academic circles," says Harry.
He recalls a university dean who had the sense to know "folks" wasn't the correct word so he used "folk" instead. But in the singular, the word takes a preceding qualifier, as in "wee folk," "little folk" and "simple folk." And there are folk songs and folkways -- the word is used there as a modifier itself.
You can be ironic and say, "the folks on Madison Avenue" or the "folks behind bars," but more and more, Harry says, the word gets used in a totally inappropriate attempt just to be folksy.
"People who are well-meant but careless use folks," says Harry. "Don't say it unless you mean it."
In my own newspaper, there have been more than 3,500 uses of the word "folks" in the past two years alone, including a reference to the "folks" who survived the Industrial Revolution.
Theodore M. Bernstein, in "The Careful Writer," condemns its use and calls it a "casualism . . . not suitable for general straightforward writing."
"There is an insidiousness about it," says Harry. "It can become a bad habit."
My conversations with Harry always leave me stuttering. My regard for his wisdom causes my words to get stuck somewhere between my head and my mouth. After all, I make my living using the language Harry is convinced has been in steady decline since Shakespeare.
"Well," I said to a friend, "hopefully Harry won't read this one."