An obsession with ‘Woke’ semantics


What’s with this word “woke?” Ask 10 different people what the word means and you may get 10 different answers. Why? Linguistics. Because the word has transfigured from its original meaning.

Words can sometimes change in meaning or nuance through natural linguistic evolution. It’s also called semantics, or the study of the meaning of words and how they develop. Have you ever wondered why some find it necessary to say that you must come to a “complete stop,” instead of just “stop?” Or how did the word “gay” evolve from a meaning of lightheartedness, carefree and fun to being mostly associated with the LGBTQ communities?

In today’s frivolous world of partisan politics “woke” has become a popular political insult. The semantical idea in the case of woke is not unlike the pejorative of the 1970s of calling someone a “yuppie.” It had a derogatory connotation as it referred to young business people who were considered to be arrogant, “born on third-base” wealthy and insufferable. But in the evolving semantics of the word “woke,” there’s a certain irony to the way it’s being used today and by whom.

Woke is a derivative of the verb “to wake.” The earliest slang use of the word I could find was an article in the New York Times in 1962 which said if you are “woke,” you “dig it,” like it’s cool, which almost sounds like it could have been in the soundtrack of “Westside Story”. At the time, however, there were no socio-political connotations.

The Oxford English Dictionary is often thought of as the ultimate source of information on the English language and its evolution. Its definition, before slang usage, defines the word as “well-informed and up-to-date”… but more recently also as “alert to racism.” It’s in this latter context that woke was derived from African-American slang, meaning being alert to racial prejudice or injustice. For example, an African American mother might say to her son on his way to his first year in college, “Now listen to me Michael, stay woke.”

The renaissance of the word came around the time of the shooting of Trayvon Martin when it was picked up by the Black Lives Matter movement. Then, ironically, it was co-opted by right-wing politicos as a way of slighting progressives as being too politically correct or too far to the left.

So, how do you get from you “dig it,” are “well-informed” or “up-to-date” or “alert to racism” to a pejorative meaning too politically correct, or too focused on social justice issues, abortion rights or voting rights and access issues, or as Governor DeSantis quipped with respect to Florida, “Florida is where woke goes to die.”

Politicians, campaign managers and marketers love catchy simplistic words or phrases that seem to stick. Senator Joe McCarthy in the 1950s and his political witch-hunters loved to use the sticky word “commies.” Or President Trump had sticky success with “MAGA,” FDR with his “New Deal,” and now Putin’s sticky nationalistic insult to rally his supporters… Ukrainians are all “Nazis.”

As a political strategy, calling your political opponents “woke” and promising to eradicate “wokeness” is a risky business. Why? First, because it feels like a silly schoolyard epithet that may turn off more people than it turns on. Second, because many have no idea what it really means. And finally because it may mean many different things to people, potentially confusing voters.

In a USA Today-IPSOS poll done this month, when asked “Which comes closer to your understanding of what it means to be “woke,” overall, “56% of those surveyed say the term means ‘to be informed, educated on and aware of social injustices,’ and that includes not only three-fourths of Democrats but also more than a third of Republicans.”

Overall, among Democrats, Republicans and Independents, 39% believe the word aligns with what has become the GOP’s political definition, “to be overly politically correct,” which is the view of 56% of Republicans.

So, therein lies the irony I spoke of earlier, in the words of USA Today in its analysis of the poll results: “The findings raise questions about whether the Republican campaign promises to ban policies at schools and workplaces they denounce as ‘woke,’ could boost a contender in the party’s primaries, but put them at odds with broader public opinion in the general election.”

The other irony is that if you use the word “woke” at a local community event or neighborhood cocktail party, expect confusion about exactly what you mean. You may get cheers from both Republicans and Democrats, depending upon your context, (a) if you are disparaging political correctness in the case of some Republicans and (b) if you mean to imply that there are social justice issues that should be addressed in the case of some Democrats. Mostly likely to feel the need for clarification are independents.

Bottom line is that words matter and when in transition semantically there are risks, not just of misuse or of offending people you don’t want to offend, but also as unwisely rushing to words that are still searching for definition.

I can hear my mother now (back in the 1960s):

Me: “I’m definitely woke.”

My mother: “No Billy, you are awake!” (only my mother called me Billy).

Bill Sims is a Hillsboro resident, retired president of the Denver Council on Foreign Relations, an author and runs a small farm in Berrysville with his wife. He is a former educator, executive and foundation president.

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