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There's More To "Woke" Than You Think

Since the ‘60s, the slang has symbolized having your eyes open to issues of social injustice.

ATLANTA, GEORGIA - OCTOBER 17:  A sign reads "Be Woke. Vote." The meaning of woke slang term has evo...
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By Bustle Editors
Originally Published: 

Unless you’ve been living under a rock (or just been off social media), you’ve probably seen or heard the word “woke” used as an adjective — as in, “stay woke.” But what does woke mean, specifically, when you use it that way?

Unlike other four-letter acronyms associated with the social justice movement, woke doesn’t stand for anything: it is literally the past participle of “wake,” as in “to wake up,” and that underpins its basic meaning. Someone who’s woke has “woken up” to issues of social injustice. The Oxford English Dictionary officially added this definition in June 2017, citing the Black Lives Matter movement as well as lyrics of Erykah Badu’s 2008 song “Master Teacher” as catalysts for the phrase’s popularity over the past decade: the song’s refrain repeats the phrase “I stay woke,” which is probably now stuck in your head.

“The original meaning of adjectival woke (and earlier woke up) was simply ‘awake’, but by the mid-20th century, woke had been extended figuratively to refer to being ‘aware’ or ‘well informed’ in a political or cultural sense,” the OED wrote in an announcement about adding this sense of “woke” to the dictionary. “In the past decade, that meaning has been catapulted into mainstream use with a particular nuance of ‘alert to racial or social discrimination and injustice’.”

Importantly, this meaning comes out of African-American Vernacular English (AAVE), writes Merriam-Webster dictionary. “Stay woke became a watch word in parts of the Black community for those who were self-aware, questioning the dominant paradigm and striving for something better.” Following its use in the Black Lives Matter movement, “instead of just being a word that signaled awareness of injustice or racial tension, it became a word of action. Activists were woke and called on others to stay woke.”

To use "woke" accurately in a sentence, you'd be talking about someone who thinks for themselves, who sees the ways in which racism, sexism and classism affect your daily life. #StayWoke often accompanies social media posts about police brutality, systematic racism and the industrial prison complex. Someone who understands how to be woke thinks critically, with intersectionality at the heart of their work.

As with other examples of woke slang, though, its meaning has been twisted over the years. Twitter urges you to #StayWoke about everything from conspiracy theories to dating red flags. You can take jokey quizzes to test how woke you are; Fox News commentators bemoan “wokeness” in the same way they deride being politically correct. In 2018, Sam Sanders argued to stop using “woke” in an op-ed for NPR: “Words that begin with a very specific meaning, used by a very specific group of people, over time become shorthand for our politics, and eventually move from shorthand to linguistic weapon. Or in the case of woke, a linguistic eye-roll.” You might also see it as a hashtag on both serious and joking conspiracy theory videos, making these feeds somewhat tricky to explore.

Years after “woke” became mainstream slang, though,, it’s clear the word isn’t going anywhere. Knowing what woke means and where it comes from is key to using it correctly — and maybe, helping people actually stay woke in the process.

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