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Are you woke?

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.”

The dictionary’s most recent citation has the same phrase: “He, just like the activists of the Black Lives Matter movement, wants America to ‘stay woke.’ ” (From the Sept. 18, 2016, issue of 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.com 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.”

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.) 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.”

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Black (or African) American?

(Note: We’re repeating this post for Martin Luther King Jr. Day. It originally appeared on March 21, 2010. However, usage changes, so we’ve inserted an update indicating the latest preferences.)

Q: I was reading an article in the New York Times that used “black American” and “African American” interchangeably. Is there a proper time for using one term or the other?

A: In general the terms “black American” and “African American” are synonymous.

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.), for example, defines “African American” as a “Black American of African ancestry.”

The Oxford English Dictionary and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) have similar definitions.

Definitions aside, debates about the nomenclature of race are nothing new. How accurate, or appropriate, is the term “African American”? How meaningfully connected to Africa are most black Americans anyway?

The linguist John McWhorter, for instance, has argued in The New Republic that the “African” part should be dropped. He is, he says, a black American.

But you don’t have to look hard to find other opinions. Keith Boykin of The Daily Voice, a black news organization, has this to say:

“I don’t care if you call yourself Negro, colored, African American or black (in lower case or upper case). … The true diversity of our people cannot be fully represented by any one term.”

We recently came across an interesting and fairly exhaustive analysis of this subject by Tom W. Smith, whose article “Changing Racial Labels: From ‘Colored’ to ‘Negro’ to ‘Black’ to ‘African American’ ” ran in The Public Opinion Quarterly in 1992.

Smith (who, by the way, capitalizes all racial terms throughout his article) sets out to discuss “changes in the acceptance of various labels, not the creation of new terms.”

He notes that “colored,” “Negro,” “black,” and “African” were all “established English terms for Blacks when America was first settled. ‘African American’ was in use at least as early as the late 1700s.”

The dominant label in the mid- to late-19th century, he writes, was “colored,” which was accepted by both whites and blacks. But “colored” was too inclusive, because it covered “not only Blacks but Asians and other non-White races.”

Consequently “Negro” began to replace “colored” as the favored term in the late 19th century, in a movement that Smith says was “led by such influential Black leaders as Booker T. Washington and W. E. B. DuBois.”

By the 1930s, he says, “Negro” had supplanted “colored,” which had begun to seem antiquated.

“But as the civil rights movement began making tangible progress in the late 1950s and early 1960s,” Smith writes, “the term ‘Negro’ itself eventually fell under attack.”

Thus “black,” like “Negro” before it, according to Smith, was seen as “forward-looking” and “progressive,” besides appearing to promote “racial pride, militancy, power, and rejection of the status quo.”

So “black” became ascendant in the 1970s, though it briefly competed with “Afro-American,” which was popular among academics.

But for the most part, from the early 1970s to the late 1980s, “the position of ‘Black’ was virtually unchallenged,” Smith writes.

This all changed in December 1988, when the National Urban Coalition proposed that “African American” replace “black” as the preferred term.

The goal “was to give Blacks a cultural identification with their heritage and ancestral homeland,” Smith writes.

“Furthermore,” he says, “it was seen as putting Blacks on a parallel with White ethnic groups.” By using a term based on culture and homeland, blacks were redefined “as an ethnic group rather than a race.”

This distinction – race versus ethnic group – is important, because “racial differences are viewed as genetically based and thus as beyond the ability of society to change,” Smith writes.

“Racial prejudice and discrimination have greatly exceeded ethnic intolerance,” he adds. “On balance, America has a better record of accepting and fairly treating ethnic groups than it does racial groups.”

Smith also touches on the criticisms of the “African American” label, which many people feel “calls for identification with a culture to which almost no actual ties exist.”

In addition, the term “has the classic ‘hyphenated American’ problem.” Whether or not there’s an actual hyphen, he notes, ethnic compounds like “German-American” sometimes have been “regarded as symbolizing divided loyalties.”

Smith, who was writing in 1992, says that “among those with a preference, ‘African American’ has grown in acceptance although ‘Black’ still is preferred by more Blacks.”

A usage note in American Heritage (the fourth edition was published in 2000) points out that “African American,” despite its popularity, “has shown little sign of displacing or discrediting black, which remains both popular and positive.”

[Update, Jan. 15, 2018: American Heritage dropped the usage note from its fifth edition. “African American” is now overwhelmingly more popular than “black American,” according to our searches of the Corpus of Contemporary American English and the News on the Web corpus, a database of articles from online newspapers and magazines.]

Does  any of this really matter? Smith quotes DuBois as saying: “The feeling of inferiority is in you, not in a name. The name merely evokes what is already there. Exorcise the hateful complex and no name can ever make you hang your head.”

“Yet names do matter,” Smith says. “Blacks have successively changed their preferred term of address from ‘Colored’ to ‘Negro’ to ‘Black’ and now, perhaps, to ‘African American’ in order to assert their group standing and aid in their struggle for racial equality.”

“While symbolic, these changes have not been inconsequential,” he adds. “For symbols are part and parcel of reality itself.”

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Is ‘ungrateful’ the new ‘uppity’?

Q: The New Yorker’s Jelani Cobb says “ungrateful” is the new “uppity,” citing its use to condemn wealthy black athletes who take a knee to protest police brutality. Any comment?

A: In his article, Cobb mentions a tweet by Joe Walsh, a conservative talk-show host and former Republican congressman from Illinois:

“Stevie Wonder began a performance in Central Park last night by taking a knee, prompting Congressman Joe Walsh to tweet that Wonder was ‘another ungrateful black multi-millionaire.’ Ungrateful is the new uppity.”

The word “ungrateful” (not feeling or showing gratitude) has been used a lot lately to criticize protesting African-American athletes, along with quite a few other disparaging terms.

For example, a widely circulated post by Breitbart News on Facebook calls the protesters “a bunch of rich, entitled, arrogant, ungrateful, anti-American degenerates.”

However, the use of “ungrateful” to criticize blacks isn’t especially new. It’s been used that way at least as far back as the mid-1800s.

The earliest example we’ve seen is from British Guiana: Demerara After Fifteen Years of Freedom, an 1853 book by John Brummell, a land owner in the Demerara region of the British colony:

“Even now, when the British nation, disappointed at the results of Emancipation in the West Indies, plainly demand that the lazy and ungrateful negro, should not be allowed to relapse into barbarism.”

And an article in the May 1864 issue of the Christian Examiner, an American journal, uses the term in predicting the reaction of plantation owners to the freeing of slaves at the end of the Civil War.

The writer says the planters will complain “that emancipation has been the ruin of the South; that the lazy and ungrateful negro chooses to earn a competency on his own soil.”

But how is “ungrateful” being used in that 1864 example? Did the writer really believe that plantation owners would think their former slaves should feel gratitude for being enslaved?

We suspect that the term is being used here in the sense of “uppity” (arrogant or conceited), a word that showed up later in the 19th century.

The first citation for “uppity” in the Oxford English Dictionary is from Uncle Remus, Joel Chandler Harris’s 1881 collection of African-American folk tales. (An earlier term, “uppish,” also means conceited or stuck up.)

Uncle Remus, the fictional black narrator of the stories, uses “uppity” for a stuck-up sparrow that tattles on Brer Fox: “Hit wuz wunner deze yer uppity little Jack Sparrers, I speck.”

Uncle Remus also uses “uppity” to describe Brer Rabbit, Brer Rooster, and a flighty black maid, Tildy.

In a few years, the word “uppity” was being used in mainstream newspapers without racial overtones, according to our searches of NewsBank databases.

The March 20, 1886, issue of the Macon (GA) Telegraph, for example, describes how a woman was tricked into pulling the bell-line to stop a train. When the conductor questions her, the woman says “you needn’t git so uppity.”

And the Jan. 23, 1888, Duluth (MN) Daily News has an account about a merchant in a town who “becomes a little uppity and bigity, and so he moves to the city.”

Of course the term has long been used to disparage African-Americans. The OED cites this example from Frederick Lewis Allen’s 1952 social history The Big Change:

“The effect of the automobile revolution was especially noticeable in the South, where one began to hear whites complaining about ‘uppity niggers’ on the highways, where there was no Jim Crow.”

And we’ll add a comment by Rush Limbaugh, who said that Michelle Obama was booed at a NASCAR event because the crowd didn’t like her travel spending and her campaign for healthy living.

“NASCAR people understand that’s a little bit of a waste,” Limbaugh said on a Nov. 21, 2011, broadcast of his radio show. “They understand it’s a little bit of uppity-ism.”

Getting back to your question, is “ungrateful” being used now in the sense of “uppity”?

Well, Joe Walsh, the talk-show host, does seem to be using it that way. But some other critics of protesting black athletes may be using it in the sense of unpatriotic.

For example, Denise Rohan, national commander of the American Legion, called the NFL protests “misguided and ungrateful.”

“There are many ways to protest, but the national anthem should be our moment to stand together as one UNITED States of America,” she said in a statement.

As for the etymology here, the words “grateful” and “ungrateful” ultimately come from grātus, classical Latin for agreeable, pleasing, popular, and thankful.

In fact, the word “grateful” meant both agreeable and thankful when it showed up in English in the mid-1500s. Similarly, “ungrateful” once meant disagreeable as well as not feeling or showing gratitude.

The earliest example for “ungrateful” in the OED uses the term in the sense of not feeling or showing gratitude:

“The Macedons … confessyng them selues bothe wicked and vngrateful, for depriuynge him of anye name wherof he was worthye.” (From John Brende’s 1553 translation of a work by the Roman historian Quintus Curtius Rufus.)

The first citation for “ungrateful” used to mean disagreeable is from “Orchestra,” a 1596 poem by John Davies about dancing:

“How shee illudes with all the Art she can, / Th’vngratefull loue which other Lords began.” (We’ve expanded the citation to add context).

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Black (or African) American?

Q: I was reading an article in the New York Times that used “black American” and “African American” interchangeably. Is there a proper time for using one term or the other?

A: In general the terms “black American” and “African American” are synonymous.

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.), for example, defines “African American” as a “Black American of African ancestry.”

The Oxford English Dictionary and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) have similar definitions.

Definitions aside, debates about the nomenclature of race are nothing new. How accurate, or appropriate, is the term “African American”? How meaningfully connected to Africa are most black Americans anyway?

The linguist John McWhorter, for instance, has argued in The New Republic that the “African” part should be dropped. He is, he says, a black American.

But you don’t have to look hard to find other opinions. Keith Boykin of The Daily Voice, a black news organization, has this to say:

“I don’t care if you call yourself Negro, colored, African American or black (in lower case or upper case). … The true diversity of our people cannot be fully represented by any one term.”

We recently came across an interesting and fairly exhaustive analysis of this subject by Tom W. Smith, whose article “Changing Racial Labels: From ‘Colored’ to ‘Negro’ to ‘Black’ to ‘African American’ ” ran in The Public Opinion Quarterly in 1992.

Smith (who, by the way, capitalizes all racial terms throughout his article) sets out to discuss “changes in the acceptance of various labels, not the creation of new terms.”

He notes that “colored,” “Negro,” “black,” and “African” were all “established English terms for Blacks when America was first settled. ‘African American’ was in use at least as early as the late 1700s.”

The dominant label in the mid- to late-19th century, he writes, was “colored,” which was accepted by both whites and blacks. But “colored” was too inclusive, because it covered “not only Blacks but Asians and other non-White races.”

Consequently “Negro” began to replace “colored” as the favored term in the late 19th century, in a movement that Smith says was “led by such influential Black leaders as Booker T. Washington and W. E. B. DuBois.”

By the 1930s, he says, “Negro” had supplanted “colored,” which had begun to seem antiquated.

“But as the civil rights movement began making tangible progress in the late 1950s and early 1960s,” Smith writes, “the term ‘Negro’ itself eventually fell under attack.”

Thus “black,” like “Negro” before it, according to Smith, was seen as “forward-looking” and “progressive,” besides appearing to promote “racial pride, militancy, power, and rejection of the status quo.”

So “black” became ascendant in the 1970s, though it briefly competed with “Afro-American,” which was popular among academics.

But for the most part, from the early 1970s to the late 1980s, “the position of ‘Black’ was virtually unchallenged,” Smith writes.

This all changed in December 1988, when the National Urban Coalition proposed that “African American” replace “black” as the preferred term.

The goal “was to give Blacks a cultural identification with their heritage and ancestral homeland,” Smith writes.

“Furthermore,” he says, “it was seen as putting Blacks on a parallel with White ethnic groups.” By using a term based on culture and homeland, blacks were redefined “as an ethnic group rather than a race.”

This distinction – race versus ethnic group – is important, because “racial differences are viewed as genetically based and thus as beyond the ability of society to change,” Smith writes.

“Racial prejudice and discrimination have greatly exceeded ethnic intolerance,” he adds. “On balance, America has a better record of accepting and fairly treating ethnic groups than it does racial groups.”

Smith also touches on the criticisms of the “African American” label, which many people feel “calls for identification with a culture to which almost no actual ties exist.”

In addition, the term “has the classic ‘hyphenated American’ problem.” Whether or not there’s an actual hyphen, he notes, ethnic compounds like “German-American” sometimes have been “regarded as symbolizing divided loyalties.”

Smith, who was writing in 1992, says that “among those with a preference, ‘African American’ has grown in acceptance although ‘Black’ still is preferred by more Blacks.”

A usage note in American Heritage (the fourth edition was published in 2000) points out that “African American,” despite its popularity, “has shown little sign of displacing or discrediting black, which remains both popular and positive.”

[Update, Jan. 15, 2018: American Heritage dropped the usage note from its fifth edition. “African American” is now overwhelmingly more popular than “black American,” according to our searches of the Corpus of Contemporary American English and the News on the Web corpus, a database of articles from online newspapers and magazines.]

Does  any of this really matter? Smith quotes DuBois as saying: “The feeling of inferiority is in you, not in a name. The name merely evokes what is already there. Exorcise the hateful complex and no name can ever make you hang your head.”

“Yet names do matter,” Smith says. “Blacks have successively changed their preferred term of address from ‘Colored’ to ‘Negro’ to ‘Black’ and now, perhaps, to ‘African American’ in order to assert their group standing and aid in their struggle for racial equality.”

“While symbolic, these changes have not been inconsequential,” he adds. “For symbols are part and parcel of reality itself.”

Help support the Grammarphobia Blog with your donation.
And check out our books about the English language.