Opinion | How ‘Woke’ Became an Insult

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If you’re subscribing to my newsletter, you likely already know that I am a linguist who writes books and articles about the joys and mysteries of language. Others likely know that I write about race in America. Some of you know that I switch hit between both and sometimes combine the two. In my newsletter I’ll also be pitching in about music and other things that occupy me from week to week.

But for this first edition, I have chosen a subject that brings together the two things I get to write about most: language and race. Namely, just what has happened to “woke” lately?

It seems it was 10 minutes ago that it was the hot new badge of enlightenment, shared warmly as a kind of lexical bonding ritual, usually in the expression “stay woke.” To be woke was to be in on a leftist take on how American society operates, especially in reference to the condition of Black America and the role of systemic racism within it.

In 2012, people were using “stay woke” on Twitter with unalloyed pride. As late as 2016, you could find rosy-cheeked teens and 20-somethings all but chirping “woke,” such as in this earnest little guide to the latest slang.

No more. These days, “woke” is said with a sneer. It’s a prisoner in scare quotes as often as not (“Why ‘wokeness’ is the biggest threat to Democrats in the 2022 election”) and typically uttered with a note of condescension somewhere between the way comedians used to talk about hippies and the way anybody talks about, well, rather than a word beginning with “a” you’ll find discussed, among other places, here, I will sub in “jerks.”

The first thing that happened to “woke” was that it was borrowed from Black slang. It first appeared in neither a BuzzFeed article nor a rap but a jolly piece on Black vernacular expressions in 1962 in this newspaper called “If You’re Woke, You Dig It.” Many will be surprised that “salty,” as in “irritable,” another Black expression that white people have taken on of late, also occurs in this piece.

By the time something hits the page, we can be sure it had been around long before, and it’s a good guess that Black people had been using “woke” for at least a couple of decades before this. Lead Belly gives us a look at its likely origins when he urges people to “stay woke” in an afterpiece remark on a 1938 recording. He is referring to Black people being alert to actual physical danger; it would have been a natural evolution to start using “stay woke” to refer to more, as we say, systemic matters.

It was after 2010 that “woke” jumped the fence into mainstream parlance. Erykah Badu’s “Master Teacher” seems to have at least planted a seed, and then those “stay woke” salutes on Twitter in 2012 were in the wake of the Trayvon Martin killing, upon which the expression was truly set in stone.

There are those who will see the story of “woke,” therefore, as one of cultural appropriation. But that’s a narrow take. To refer to its uptake by whites as a kind of theft is one way to see it. But another way is to marvel at how bizarre it would have been as recently as the 1980s for white progressives to warmly embrace a term from the Black street as a sign of empathy with Black America’s problems — and as for the theft, Black English is mighty enough that legions of its slang words and expressions stay quite unappropriated, thank you very much. Clearly we can spare one or two now and then? In the meantime, while racism’s persistence is clear, people who like and at least halfway understand one another will talk like one another.

The browning of American culture since the 1990s — chronicled in Leon Wynter’s grievously underconsulted book “American Skin: Pop Culture, Big Business and the End of White America” — has meant not just that a lot of white kids like them some Jay-Z but also that a generation of white kids sound a little Blacker in casual speech than their parents did. To be someone who teaches college now after having gone to college with those parents is to see and hear this quite clearly. “Stay woke” on white people’s T-shirts is a sign of coming together. Symbolic? Sure, but last time I checked, symbols matter.

But if that’s the story, then why is wokeness now something so many people are more likely to disavow than own? Isn’t that the same old thing, a rejection of Blackness?

A rejection, yes — but of a kind too typical of what happens to words all the time to fit a race-specific narrative. We understand this when we see that the real wind behind its wings in the early 2010s was that “woke” served as a handy, nonpejorative replacement for “politically correct.”

I remember that term used straight, without dismissal and only a hint of irony, in 1984. A white college friend, very much of the left, used it with a quiet sprinkle of irony, but sincerely. (“Of course, you know this if you’re” — smile and two-millisecond pause, signaling “you know” — “politically correct.”) He meant that a certain complex of leftist beliefs — i.e., the ones called “woke” in 2012 — were obviously the proper ones for any reasonable person to have, that they signaled a higher awareness.

In a view like that, there is, inevitably, a certain self-satisfaction. And in some of those holding this kind of view, that self-satisfaction will express itself in dismissal and abuse of those ungifted with the third eye in question. The result will be resistance, much of it no less pretty, and this was why, just a few years after my college friend used the term, “politically correct” had become the slur “P.C.,” hurled at the left from the right and even from the center.

“Woke” has just undergone the same process: Those bristling at being accused of not being woke have pushed back to the point of leaving the term in bad odor. Certainly “woke” has a racial substrate, but the larger process here is the race-neutral euphemism treadmill, a term I am ripping off from Steven Pinker. A well-used word or expression is subject to ridicule or has grimy associations. A new term is born to replace it and help push thought ahead. But after that term spends some time getting knocked around in the real world, the associations the old term had settle back down, like gnats, on the new one. Yet another term is needed. Repeat.

This was how we got from “politically correct” to “woke.” This was the path from “crippled” to “handicapped” to “disabled” to “differently abled.” Certainly it can be about race matters, as “slum clearance” became “urban renewal.” But just as often, it’s things more race neutral. There was a time when one called a trade union a combination, and the draft was often called conscription. The old words had, for better or for worse, menacing associations that made it seem useful to sub in other ones.

This can happen, as those two replacements did, quite below the radar and are happening as we speak (read? write?). As in: The unbiased anthropologist would term the reason that a few episodes of “30 Rock” with mock blackface sequences are no longer streamed “censorship.” However, as the historian and podcaster Amna Khalid taught me, the perspective behind decisions like this is more commonly wielded via terming something “problematic,” which in modern usage so often implies not just that something is abstractly a problem but also that it ought to be classified as inconsonant with civilized sensibility and cordoned off from it in some way. Especially on the left, “problematic” is being drawn onto the treadmill to step away from the stodgy, menacing, backward associations that the word “censorship” has taken on, while engaging in what many would treat as the same project.

Another one: We are in the midst of what has been called, since last year, a “racial reckoning.” However, not long ago, the set term for what this refers to was “conversation”; many of us will recall, in fact, the Clinton administration sponsoring an official national conversation on race. The term “conversation” here was somewhat, yes, euphemistic.

The real aim was less conversation than conversion: to the idea that America needs to acknowledge the role that racism has played in its past and present — i.e., to own up to it, to … reckon. However, the term “conversation” as applied here came to feel — and not just to whites! — clichéd and even insincere. It was natural that the term of art in 2020 would be something else, and “reckoning” was not only useful but also more precise and honest.

Thus in the broad view, what has happened to “woke” is a demonstration of negative associations gunking up well-intentioned labels. This is as common and even inevitable as germs. What can look like people deliberately seeking to confuse the rest of us with ever-morphing terminology is usually just a matter of trying to be seen plain.

A mature societal take on language will understand that words are not simply what they mean in something called the dictionary and that words referring to issues societal or controversial — i.e., the interesting ones — will often need replacement about once a generation.

We can be quite sure that sooner rather than later — I’d bet on roughly 2028 — there will be a replacement term for “woke.” The issue is less whether than when, and “woke” will hardly be alone. Note, for instance, that a reckoning is already in order about none other than “racial reckoning.” See the gnats on it already?

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