What Do You Mean by “Woke”?

By Maeve Maddox

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The verb to wake has a long history in English. Its most common meaning today is “to become or cause to become awake.” As a verb, woke is a past tense:

I woke in the night and could not go back to sleep.
Charles woke me in time to catch the early train

The word woke as an adjective—as in the hashtag #staywoke—is a more recent addition to the language.

I’ve been aware of this use of woke for some time now, so I was surprised when six of my writer friends admitted—in November 2019—that they’d never heard of woke being used in this way. How, I wondered, can they be so out of the loop? But then, as I researched the word, I found a February 2019 article in Oprah Magazine that asked readers if they were familiar with the term woke. Fifty-three percent responded that they had never heard of it.

Woke in the sense of “being awake” comes from African American Vernacular English (AAVE). It may have been used in that way as early as the 1940s, but the first documented printed use dates from a 1962 New York Times article titled, “If You’re Woke You Dig It.” In the article, writer William Melvin Kelley defines several words and expressions common among black speakers of the time. “To be woke” was “to be in the know.”

The phrase “stay woke,” gained currency in 2008 as a refrain in a song by singer Erykah Badu. Charles Pulliam-Moore, in an article in Splinter News, dates the politically charged use of the hashtag #staywoke to the years 2012-2013. Then, it conveyed a general meaning of “remaining vigilant about social issues.” In 2014, it became associated with the newly launched Black Lives Matter movement.

By 2017, the word was in such wide use that both the Oxford English Dictionary and Merriam-Webster added it to their entries.

In January 2017, the BBC announced that the OED had added woke with the figurative meaning of “being aware or well informed in a political or cultural sense.”

In September 2017, M-W added it to the American dictionary with the definition, “being conscious of racial discrimination in society and other forms of oppression and injustice.”

Even before woke had been added to these lexicons, its usefulness as a reliable instrument of meaning had begun to decline.

In the September 2016 issue of Ebony, Shae Collins admonished readers to beware of five unhelpful attitudes regarding the use of woke:

1. Calling out people in unhelpful ways
2. Forgetting to check our privilege
3. Judging others who don’t think like us
4. Looking down on “less woke” folks
5. Pretending like we don’t have more growing to do

In December 2016, MTV infuriated many of its viewers by urging white men to resolve to stop using woke altogether.

In 2017, the Saturday Night Live satirists exposed woke’s diluted meaning with a skit about “Levi Wokes.” The mythical jeans are depicted as totally nondiscriminatory. They’re genderless and sizeless. They have no pockets, because not everyone has hands. The zipper design is convenient for either sex. The color is “not brown, but not not brown.”

Like the term “politically correct,” woke has gone from meaning something specific to meaning anything a speaker wants it to mean.

Now that woke is in the mainstream, Shae Collins’s 2016 caveats to black readers apply to everyone who would like to continue using the term as a serious political statement.

If all woke means is to look down on people who don’t think exactly like you, then the word has become just a synonym for bigoted.

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