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When did woke become a four-letter word?

When did woke become a four-letter word?

Poll: How words have changed over time

Woke. No matter your political stance or cultural affiliation, this short and simple word, in use since the twelfth century, now has the power to raise your blood pressure—and your guard.

For hundreds of years, the word remained unwaveringly related to the verb awake. But in the 1960s, that shifted when woke evolved into an adjective—mostly used in African American English, according to Merriam-Webster—to mean “aware of and actively attentive to important facts and issues—especially issues of racial and social justice.”

Over the last 70 years, woke has linguistically evolved, contorted, and inverted itself. The term has been so fast-changing and socially fraught that Merriam-Webster issued an explainer before adding the term's new definition in 2017, saying that woke “gained more widespread use beginning in 2014 as part of the Black Lives Matter movement.” But that meaning—and the power that came with it to rally, organize, and signal a common mission—was quickly flipped. And “by the end of that same decade [woke] was also being applied by some as a general pejorative for anyone who is or appears to be politically left-leaning.”

Woke is now used as both a compliment and an insult.

Today, no one so much as bats an eye at pundits and politicians riffing on variations including wokeness and wokeism. Woke is now used as both a compliment and an insult, a signal that you’re in the know, and a dog whistle accompanying rants on anything from trans rights to book banning.

When UMass Amherst Poll asked some 1,100 Americans about their take on the word, the researchers found “that for most, the term that best describes woke is [still] its synonym, aware, with many speaking to the racial implications of the term,” says Tatishe Nteta, UMass Amherst Poll director. When the poll dug deeper into the specific topics that imbue current-day woke—including diversity, antisemitism, and immigration—the data revealed a surprising story of what some Americans really care about and underlying anxieties about a changing society. Respondents described woke across a spectrum that put on stark display the word’s loaded nature—and evolving power. Words included in these descriptions included stupid, discrimination, minority, progressive, liberal, Republican, racist, and ideology.

Through simple inquiry, UMass Amherst Poll has hit on a core curiosity of woke: it can and does mean very different things to different factions of the American public. And as our highly polarized society morphs its meaning over time, UMass Amherst Poll will be tracking our collective thoughts and telling the story of this powerful four-letter word.

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