[Note: This post was updated on March 3, 2021.]
Q: I’m seeing the word “woke” all over the place. What’s the story about this word du jour? It seems to mean “politically aware.”
A: Yes, the adjective “woke” has become trendy of late, but it’s not new.
In the figurative sense of “alert” or “hip,” the word has been around since the early 1960s. But in recent decades it has come to have a more specific figurative meaning—alert to racial or social injustice.
The Oxford English Dictionary says the usage is derived from the “woke” that’s a past tense of the verb “wake”—to become awake or emerge from sleep. (We discussed the verbs “wake,” “waken,” “awake,” and “awaken” in 2012.)
Originally, the OED says, the figurative adjective “woke” meant “well-informed, up-to-date.”
The dictionary’s earliest figurative example is from “If You’re Woke, You Dig It,” an article about black slang that appeared in the May 20, 1962, issue of the New York Times Magazine.
The article, by the Harlem novelist William Melvin Kelley, includes a lexicon in which he describes “woke” as an adjective meaning “well-informed, up-to-date,” as in “Man I’m woke.”
Today, the dictionary says, the word chiefly means “alert to racial or social discrimination and injustice.”
The next example in the OED illustrates that sense of the word: “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.” (A line of dialogue in Barry Beckham’s 1972 play Garvey Lives!)
As Oxford explains, the adjective is frequently heard in the phrase “stay woke,” which is “often used as an exhortation.”
Here’s a more recent example of the phrase: “I don’t think [Kareem] Abdul-Jabbar would mind if I concluded that he, just like the activists of the Black Lives Matter movement, wants America to ‘stay woke.’ ” (From a Sept. 16, 2016, opinion column by the author Marita Golden in The Washington Post.)
This activist use of “woke,” Oxford says, was “perhaps 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, in which the words ‘I stay woke’ serve as a refrain.”
The OED is an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence. Standard dictionaries, too, have entries for this use of “woke.”
Merriam-Webster labels the usage “chiefly US slang” and defines it as “aware of and actively attentive to important facts and issues (especially issues of racial and social justice).”
M-W illustrates the usage with quotations from the news: “We have a moral obligation to ‘stay woke,’ take a stand and be active,” and “Brad Pitt is not only woke, but the wokest man in Hollywood.”
American Heritage calls it “slang” derived from African-American Vernacular English and defines it as “aware of the injustice of the social system in which one lives.”
Oxford Dictionaries online labels it “US informal” and says it means “alert to injustice in society, especially racism.”
The American Dialect Society is hip to “woke.” In January 2017, at the society’s annual meeting, members chose it as the Slang Word of the Year for 2016 (definition: “socially aware or enlightened”).
The journal American Speech, in its “Among the New Words” column in May 2017, described “woke” as “an item of long-standing African American usage … that has recently undergone cultural appropriation.”