[ wohk ]
/ woʊk /
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a simple past tense of wake1.
having or marked by an active awareness of systemic injustices and prejudices, especially those involving the treatment of ethnic, racial, or sexual minorities: In light of incidents of police brutality, it’s important to stay woke.He took one African American history class and now he thinks he’s woke.This generation of kids is trying to make woke choices in life.
Disparaging. of or relating to a liberal progressive orthodoxy, especially promoting inclusive policies or ideologies that welcome or embrace ethnic, racial, or sexual minorities.
Slang. aware of the facts, true situation, etc. (sometimes used facetiously): The moon landing was staged. Stay woke!
awake: I had to drink lots of coffee this morning to stay woke.
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Origin of woke

First recorded before 900 as past tense(for def. 1); 1960–65 (for defs. 2, 4), popularized by the Black civil rights movement and later by Black Lives Matter


un·woke, adjectivewoke·ism, wok·ism, nounwoke·ness, noun
Dictionary.com Unabridged Based on the Random House Unabridged Dictionary, © Random House, Inc. 2023


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.

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.

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

British Dictionary definitions for woke

/ (wəʊk) /

a past tense of wake 1
Collins English Dictionary - Complete & Unabridged 2012 Digital Edition © William Collins Sons & Co. Ltd. 1979, 1986 © HarperCollins Publishers 1998, 2000, 2003, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2009, 2012