Origin of woke
OTHER WORDS FROM wokeun·woke, adjectivewoke·ism, wok·ism, nounwoke·ness, noun
Words nearby woke
ABOUT THIS WORD
What else does woke mean?
Woke means being conscious of racial discrimination in society and other forms of oppression and injustice. In mainstream use, woke can also more generally describe someone or something as being “with it.”
Where did the term woke come from?
Figurative woke—being socially and politically awake, or aware—starts emerging in Black English at least by the 1940s. A 1943 article in The Atlantic quoted a Black United Mine Workers official from 1940 playing with woke in a metaphor for social justice: “Waking up is a damn sight than going to sleep, but we’ll stay woke up longer.”
By the 1960s, woke could more generally mean “well-informed” in Black English, but it still strongly aligned with political awareness, especially in the context of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1950–60s and appearing in the phrase stay woke. The term was notable enough to prompt a 1962 New York Times article commenting on Black slang, titled “If You’re Woke You Dig It.”
A 1972 play about the Black nationalist Marcus Garvey, Garvey Lives! by Barry Beckham, notably used woke for awareness of racial injustice in the Black community: “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.”
Singer and activist Erykah Badu is credited with helping to revive woke in her 2008 song “Master Teacher,” whose chorus dreams of a better, uplifted world.
After Trayvon Martin, a young unarmed Black man, was shot dead in February 2012, many in the Black community issued calls to stay woke to the discrimination and injustice Black people face in the U.S., particularly in the form of police brutality.
Especially under the hashtag “#staywoke” on social media, woke took off in 2014 with the Black Lives Matter movement, ignited by the tragic shooting of two other young, unarmed Black men by police officers. Among activists, woke and stay woke were cries not just to be aware of racial injustice, but to organize and mobilize to do something about it.
Woke was quickly appropriated by mainstream white culture in the mid-2010s, to the criticism of many Black observers. In many instances, woke did spread in keeping with its activist spirit, referring to awareness of other forms of injustice, such as sexism, anti-gay sentiment, and white privilege.
In other cases, though, the force of woke was diluted as it became the subject of humorous memes or just casually used as a label for anyone who is “with the times,” not necessarily engaged in the fight for justice and equality. This dilution especially occurred on woke Twitter, with major brands appearing to capitalize on social justice to appeal to millennials.
Now, stay woke is pretty abundant in mainstream media … everyone from Childish Gambino to Netflix is cashing in on the phrase’s popularity but also spreading its 100% important and influential meaning, as well.
How to use the term woke
Woke sometimes takes a superlative form, wokest, emphasizing the extent of someone’s wokeness, or the state of being woke.
As a result of its mainstream appropriation, woke toggles between several uses. It is still used for awareness of and activism against forms of oppression and injustice.
This article serves a good warning to the ruling class: The outrage has just begun.
Dems had better get woke to the idea that the country is #ProgressiveOrBust or revolution is coming.
Thankfully, I've been a strong progressive ally for literally days.https://t.co/1lSfTZ9yaP
— Nate's Liver – Commentary (@SilERabbit) June 29, 2018
It is also used for being conscious of “true reality” more generally, of not accepting conventional wisdom. Artificial intelligence, for instance, is often described as woke when it becomes self-aware.
Maeve isn't the only host is is #woke! Others have known this world is not their world! https://t.co/DmTQhMsGr5
Will a peace be had? #Westworld #HBO
— Dan Salem 🎥 (@thedansalem) June 15, 2018
Woke is also sometimes just used to characterize someone as “hip” or “open-minded.”
Finally, in Black English, woke can also still mean just being literally “awake,” harkening back to its roots.
More examples of woke:
“‘You’ve got to be careful who you listen to,’ [Helen] Moore said. Later, she said, ‘As our young people say, get woke,’ though she changed it to ‘stay woke’ after a few in the audience told her that’s really how young people say it.”
—Lori Higgins, Detroit Free Press, March 2018
This content is not meant to be a formal definition of this term. Rather, it is an informal summary that seeks to provide supplemental information and context important to know or keep in mind about the term’s history, meaning, and usage.
How to use woke in a sentence
In an ironic twist, his self-imposed blockade on collecting donations from “woke corporations” is one reason his digital ad team is spending more on Facebook.
Perhaps voters will view attacking the woke and cancel culture as the latest round of partisan fights around identity and race.Why Attacking ‘Cancel Culture’ And ‘Woke’ People Is Becoming The GOP’s New Political Strategy|Perry Bacon Jr. (firstname.lastname@example.org)|March 17, 2021|FiveThirtyEight
I’m not sure Republicans will stay on this message of attacking the woke and cancel culture.Why Attacking ‘Cancel Culture’ And ‘Woke’ People Is Becoming The GOP’s New Political Strategy|Perry Bacon Jr. (email@example.com)|March 17, 2021|FiveThirtyEight
Fourth, this anti-woke posture gives conservative activists and Republican officials a way to excuse extreme behavior in the past and potentially rationalize such behavior in the future.Why Attacking ‘Cancel Culture’ And ‘Woke’ People Is Becoming The GOP’s New Political Strategy|Perry Bacon Jr. (firstname.lastname@example.org)|March 17, 2021|FiveThirtyEight
Third, this anti-woke posture provides something of a policy infrastructure for the GOP, aligning with the party’s existing priorities and introducing some new ones.Why Attacking ‘Cancel Culture’ And ‘Woke’ People Is Becoming The GOP’s New Political Strategy|Perry Bacon Jr. (email@example.com)|March 17, 2021|FiveThirtyEight
One measly year later, Pam woke to find a naked Ewing grinning at her in the shower.‘The Walking Dead’ Fans Demand: Bring Back Beth!|Melissa Leon|December 11, 2014|DAILY BEAST
When she came to, she alleges that she woke up in his bed and Cosby had his shirt off.Bill Cosby’s Long List of Accusers (So Far): 18 Alleged Sexual Assault Victims Between 1965-2004|Marlow Stern|November 24, 2014|DAILY BEAST
She woke up and realized she had no recollection of the past several hours.How Bill Cosby Allegedly Silenced His Accusers Through A Tabloid Smear Campaign|Marlow Stern|November 21, 2014|DAILY BEAST
Another incident, in January, involved a Kenyan man, Paul Mutora, who woke up in the morgue 15 hours after being pronounced dead.What It’s Like to Wake Up Dead|Dr. Anand Veeravagu, MD, Tej Azad|November 21, 2014|DAILY BEAST
“I woke up and I was in the back of my car all alone,” Ferrier said.How Bill Cosby Allegedly Silenced His Accusers Through A Tabloid Smear Campaign|Marlow Stern|November 21, 2014|DAILY BEAST
The strains of the syren at last woke her uncle, and brought back Miss Hood, who suggested that it was late.The Pit Town Coronet, Volume I (of 3)|Charles James Wills
Both animal and man seemed to be dozing, but they woke into activity when the sahib approached.The Red Year|Louis Tracy
Instantly Eudora, who had seemed so listless, woke up with all the hospitality of her Southern nature roused to action.The Cromptons|Mary J. Holmes
Perhaps vanity was wounded there—that his successful rival woke contempt in her was unendurable.The Wave|Algernon Blackwood
It was two nights after this conversation that I woke out of deep sleep and heard sounds of screaming.Three More John Silence Stories|Algernon Blackwood