Update in March 2021: Back in June 2017, Glosso reported that the word woke had officially entered the Oxford English Dictionary (and I believe it also entered Webster Merriam that same year). A further post in September 2019, which is reposted below, delved more deeply into the word’s etymology and nuanced history. Has the figurative adjective evolved further in the past year-and-a-half, given its prominence and ubiquity in the Black Lives Matter movement and other areas of social justice consciousness? Has its meaning shifted again, taking on a mocking or pejorative insinuation, in addition to the conscious and righteous sense that makes so many people – if not a whole generation – “woke and proud” today?
Shortly after Joe Biden was sworn in as President at the beginning of this year, a British Member of Parliament, Lisa Nandy, described the new US leader as a “woke guy,” and suggested that he should be held up as a model for the Labour Party’s leadership and values. Her statement, which clearly used the adjective in a positive, flattering sense, prompted a question to the British Prime Minister, Boris Johnson: “Is Joe Biden woke?” His slightly awkward reply showed just how much this word is at an ambiguous, politicized and arguably divisive crossroads these days, when it can be understood in two distinct ways: first, as a worthy, commendable quality of social awareness, empathy and compassion; secondly, more negatively, as a threatening symbol of today’s “cancel culture,” as touted by the actor-turned-political party leader Laurence Fox, who has vowed in recent weeks to oppose the word woke for the “rest of his days,” believing it to be “anti-British”. What follows is Glosso’s 2019 post that looked into the history of this ubiquitous and increasingly charged four-letter word.
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From September 2019:
The BBC’s Last Night of the Proms has opened this evening with the world premiere of a new piece by British composer Daniel Kidane – and that piece is called Woke. Why woke, you might ask? As Kidane explains in The Guardian, “I first heard woke as an adjective from the US, alongside the rise of the #BlackLivesMatter movement. The term “stay woke” was used as an empowering slogan that encouraged people to be vigilant to the injustices in society, especially racism. But as the word grew in popularity, the licence to use it in any which way expanded and its meaning became diluted. It was in response to this woke-washing that I decided to call my piece for tonight’s Last Night of the Proms “Woke”.
The OED explains the history of this figurative sense of woke: “Originally: well-informed, up-to-date. Now chiefly: alert to racial or social discrimination and injustice; frequently in stay woke, often used as an exhortation. In later use perhaps it was popularized through its association with African-American civil rights activism (in recent years particularly the Black Lives Matter movement), and by the lyrics of the 2008 song Master Teacher by American singer-songwriter Erykah Badu [watch video below], in which the words I stay woke serve as a refrain.” The OED cites an early politically conscious usage of woke in the 1962 New York Times article “If You’re Woke You Dig It” by William Melvin Kelley. It also draws attention to the 1971 play Garvey Lives! by Barry Beckham: “I been sleeping all my life. And now that Mr. Garvey done woke me up, I’m gon stay woke. And I’m gon help him wake up other black folk.” Garvey had himself exhorted his early 20th-century audiences to “Wake up Ethiopia! Wake up Africa!” According to the Encyclopedia of African American History, 1896 to the Present, to”stay woke” in this sense expresses the intensified continuative and habitual grammatical aspect of African American vernacular English, in essence to always be awake, or to be ever vigilant.
However, since the late 2010s woke has been adopted as a more generic slang term and has also been used somewhat ironically. In the New York Times Magazine in 2016, Amanda Hess raised concerns that the word has been culturally appropriated. As she wrote in her article “Earning the ‘Woke’ Badge”:
“These days, it has become almost fashionable for people to telegraph just how aware they have become. And this uneasy performance has increasingly been advertised with one word: “woke.” Think of “woke” as the inverse of “politically correct.” If “P.C.” is a taunt from the right, a way of calling out hypersensitivity in political discourse, then “woke” is a back-pat from the left, a way of affirming the sensitive. It means wanting to be considered correct, and wanting everyone to know just how correct you are.
She goes on to explain how the word has been appropriated — and re-appropriated — in the mid-2010s:
In January, MTV announced “woke” as a trendy new slice of teen slang. As Brock said, “The original cultural meaning of ‘stay woke’ gets lost in the shuffle.” … And so those who try to signal their wokeness by saying “woke” have revealed themselves to be very unwoke indeed. Now black cultural critics have retooled “woke” yet again, adding a third layer that claps back at the appropriators. “Woke” now works as a dig against those who claim to be culturally aware and yet are, sadly, lacking in self-awareness. In a sharp essay for The Awl, Maya Binyam coined the term “Woke Olympics,” a “kind of contest” in which white players compete to “name racism when it appears” or condemn “fellow white folk who are lagging behind.”
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