Lately, having someone address his or her audience as “my friends” has been bugging me. I mean, who are they to call me a friend? They don’t even know me! Silly, I know. Language changes and I’ve got to go with it. (I’m still trying to come to terms with “yummy,” a word I associate with mummy at age three.) Still, I was interested to read Paul Collins’ Slate piece, “Why McCain can’t stop saying ‘my friends.'”
What happened to change the phrase’s status in our language after Eisenhower’s 1956 speech? I have my own unprovable pet theory: It’s because the following year saw The Music Man debut on Broadway. Ever since, the phrase has been irrevocably associated with old-timey con men in straw boaters: “My friends, you got trouble right here in River City!”
When McCain invokes “my friends,” he’s making an appeal to the old days—the really old days.
I don’t necessarily think everyone who uses the phrase is doing this (evoking the really old days, that is), but it is an interesting theory, you’ve got to admit.