Defending a perfectly good word

An online reader comment on a headline prompts this post in defense of a word.

The headline was "Kinfolk defend victims, suspect." The story is from Johnston County. For those of you blog readers who aren’t familiar with the Triangle, I will point out two things: Johnston County is a mostly rural area southeast of Raleigh and I live in Johnston County.

Here is the reader’s comment:

"I’m so angry about this headline I just had to come back again. I’ve had about enough of this newspaper making fun of rural people over the years. Would you have written something this ignorant if the victims had been rural blacks? ‘Homies and baby mama defend victims’. Would you have written this headline if it were your family or friends? Please, re-evaluate your policy. It’s not cute or homey. It’s ignorant."

I would tell the commenter, if I could, that not even one of the four dictionaries I checked considers kinfolk slang (as "homie" and "baby mama" are). It is an Americanism, a variation of kinsfolk, but none of the dictionaries labeled it as a mostly rural term. It entered the language in 1873, one dictionary reported. And it certainly is not a pejorative term to refer broadly to "relatives."

I would also cite some headlines from our newspaper that used the word kinfolk on stories that did not have to do with rural people.

* Residents fret, weep over missing kinfolk, lost homes — about the aftermath of an apartment building fire in Raleigh.

* Separated North and South Korean kinfolk reunite

* Montagnards help kinfolk adjust (Well, the Montagnards did live in the mountains of Vietnam.)

I found a couple of headlines on Ask Amy columns that used kinfolk, too, but I am rather sure that I wrote those, so maybe they don’t count.

I would also point out that movie reviewer Craig D. Lindsey used kinfolk in a review to refer to members of a family in "Johnson Family Vacation," which happens to feature an African-American cast.

I won’t even cite all the instances of kinfolk in headlines in the New York Times going back a century that referred to people from all areas and of all ethnicities.

Indeed, as the product of a rural North Carolina upbringing, I am sensitive to the stereotypes that linger about poor, white, Southern people who live in the country. In fact, I do think that we newspaper types are sometimes dismissive of whole classes of people who don’t seem like us (middle-class, educated, urban-dwelling). But to answer one of the reader’s questions [assertion, actually] I would not hesitate one second to refer to my parents, siblings, aunts, uncle and cousins as kinfolk in a published work.

This article was originally posted by the Raleigh News & Observer, a subsidiary of The McClatchy Co.; is posted here to provide continuity; and is copyright © 2011 The News & Observer Publishing Company, which reserves the right to remove this post.