Thursday, July 19, 2012

"You people"

Ann Romney's dismissive “we’ve given all you people need to know” has gone viral, I read. On Daily Kos, you get this response:
I don't know about you, but where I come from, that's called high falutin' and condescending. I wonder if her nose was in the air when she said it? No video accompanies.
Well, I'd call it much worse than that.  I can't hear the phrase 'you people' today without instantly getting racist overtones or something related. (Here, it's classist.) Good old gives the classic story of Ross Perot using a very similar phrase before the NAACP, including this:
Willie Clark, president of the N.A.A.C.P. branch in San Bernadino, Calif., said the overall tone of Mr. Perot's remarks and particularly his use of the phrase "your people" reflected how culturally out of touch he was with his audience.
The reaction to Ann Romney's comment could well be in good measure due to the fact that it reinforces the notion that she, and they, are culturally out of touch with their audience, namely the American people.

But I'm actually left wondering about the history of this phrase. It's cleared risen in written usage, according to the Ngram below, for American English (click to embiggen).

I poked around in a bunch of the early attestations and where they were ghosts (mostly where 'you' ended a sentence and 'people' started a new one), the early ones mostly look like they're just addressing some group of people. By the 1970s, you can find some, but ever there it's hardly so clear. Anybody know when the modern meaning got established?

(Image of the t-shirt from here.)


Jonathon said...

I don't know anything about the history of the phrase used in a derogatory manner, but just last night I rewatched the Community episode "Interpretive Dance", which featured this relevant scene.

I read a comment somewhere that Anne Romney may have intended it to mean something like "you journalists", but even then it still has a definite classist vibe to me.

Mr. Verb said...

I'd never seen that clip, thanks! Yeah, maybe a slap at the journos, but that wouldn't change my reading of the statement either.

Jonathon said...

Also, it looks like there is a video of the interview on the page you linked to. Here's the direct link to it on YouTube.

But did she actually say "you people"? I watched the video a few times, and I'm not sure there's actually a "you" in there. If there is, it sounds kind of clipped. Paging Mark Liberman?

Mr. Verb said...

Thanks. I'm sure I hear it, but somebody will no doubt confirm acoustically. If not on the Log, maybe one of the local folks.

Jan said...

Or she could be saying "you" because she's been using "you" in previous parts of the answer, then trying to emend it to "people" on the fly -- it sounds as if she half-swallows the "you."

Mr. Verb said...

That is a really generous interpretation. The 'you' does sound kinda half swallowed and I wondered if that was typical for her prosody, which I'm not very familiar with.


Andy said...

I believe "you people" is used in some dialects (including Perot's East Texas dialect) as a 2nd person plural pronoun similar to "you all/y'all" and (ironically) is considered to be a polite form in contrast to the familiar "y'all".

Anonymous said...

Very slightly off-topic for which I apologize, but I wonder about the later part of the sentence.

" . . . all you people need to know" is the usual version quoted, which of course carries an implication of high-handed know-betterism. But doesn't the fuller quotation, " . . . all you people need to know and understand about our financial situation . . . ", remove that implication? With the fuller quotation, doesn't the particle "to" in "need to know" emerge pretty clearly as meaning "for the purpose of"? If Ms. Romney had said, "all you [people] need for the purpose of knowing and understanding about our financial situation," wouldn't this be understood in a much more benign and neutral way?

I'm not a language expert and I'm certainly no partisan of the Romneys. But I would be grateful for your opinions on this. Thank you!

Oregon Guy Who Rarely Posts

Mr. Verb said...

Andy, I remember something about dialect coming up with Perot, maybe this point, but don't know more.

Oregon Guy, not off topic but to the context, certainly. I listened to the full quote a set of times and didn't get that sense, but that is, like Jan's point, a reading that would soften this.