Bridget Minamore | Contributing Writer | Friday, 18 August 2017

Woke Has Been Added To The Dictionary, But What Does It Really Mean?

Woke Has Been Added To The Dictionary, But What Does It Really Mean?

The Debrief: From woke baes to woke-o-meters, the meaning of woke has shifted greatly.

How woke are you? Added to the Oxford English Dictionary this year, it’s clear that the word ‘woke’ has both meaning and history. The question, perhaps, is more what, exactly, that meaning is? 

What does woke mean?

In its modern-day, politicised context, ‘woke’ is defined by the OED as ‘originally: well-informed, up-to-date. Now chiefly: alert to racial or social discrimination and injustice’. The Urban Dictionary, meanwhile, explains that ‘being woke means being aware… knowing what’s going on in the community (related to racism and social injustice)’.

The history of the word 'Woke' 

‘Woke’ follows a long history of words and phrases that relate the gaining of knowledge to sleep and/or sight. Everyone from angry politicians to conspiracy theorists has told the world they’re ‘blind to the truth’ or that they need to ‘open their eyes’, and rap music with a political message is widely known as ‘conscious’ hip-hop. ‘Woke’ is a natural successor to these, but its grammatical quirk is a product of AAVE (African-American Vernacular English) which through the ambiguity of its tense, implies being woke is a state of mind rooted in the past. The implication is that once someone has become woke, they can’t easily go back to sleep. For instance, people describe themselves as ‘being woke’ as opposed to ‘being awake’ or having ‘woke up’. 

Like most words, the history of woke is a surprisingly long one. The word was first used in the 1800s but back then, it only meant the act of not being asleep. Fast forward a few centuries and the first recorded use of ‘woke’ in its politically conscious incarnation was via a N.Y. Times Magazine glossary of ‘phrases and words you might hear today in Harlem’ in 1962. The glossary was alongside an article on African-American street slang by black novelist William Melvin Kelley, and his explanation of ‘woke’ was the ‘well-informed, up-to-date’ definition the OED uses today. In 1972, Barry Beckham’s play Garvey Lives! includes a character claiming he’ll ‘stay woke’ using the work of Jamaican activist leader Marcus Garvey: ‘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’. 

For years ‘woke’ was widely used as slang by African-American communities. Then, in 2008, singer Erykah Badu brought it back into mainstream public consciousness when she used ‘I stay woke’ in her song Master Teacher. The #staywoke hashtag was first used on Twitter in 2009, although it took two more years before anyone used ‘stay woke’ to mean something beyond not being asleep. In the years since, both the word and the phrase ‘stay woke’ have taken on a life of their own. Coinciding with high profile deaths of African-Americans at the hands of the police, the rise of Black Lives Matter, and a growing sense of racial injustice across the US, ‘woke’ became a proclamation of awareness—a word that recognised that the political system isn’t fair. Staying woke was a way for people of all races to use shorthand in calling out society’s racial ills, but also served as a one-word way of encouraging people to pay political attention. Erykah herself used ‘stay woke’ in a tweet supporting Russian feminist dissidents Pussy Riot.

Woke in popular culture 

 Over time however, the usage of ‘woke’ has shifted. On the one hand, the word has been appropriated and subsequently watered down by people who aren’t the politicised African American communities who originated the term. You can find ‘How Woke Are You?’ quizzes, famous white men christened ‘woke baes’ for speaking up against sexism or racism, and ‘woke-o-meter’ rankings of those celebrities deemed particularly woke (all of whom, of course, are white).

There’s something galling about well-meaning white people and (mosty-white) media organisations using ‘woke’ as a catch-all term to refer to fellow white people, and the word’s widespread use has consequently led to it feeling fairly meaningless. Middle class white people around the world call themselves ‘woke’ because they send out the occasional tweet calling for peace and love, not because they’re trying to make any concrete effort to change the racist status quo. Calling yourself woke simply isn’t enough—you need to act. But a word that’s been diluted to the extent this one has is not necessarily going to get you there.   

Tags: Politics Meets Pop Culture