Words are not static things. the meaning of a word can be fluid and shift over time. That's how languages evolve. 1960's hippies used to say "far out" or "groovy" but they eventually fell out of fashion. The evolution of language is perfectly natural, and usually it's a positive process – but in this era of culture warring and pitting ideologies and identities against each other, the shift of words with racial meanings holds greater significance, and this is exactly what has happened with the word ‘woke’.
The original meaning of ‘woke’ was to be awake to social injustice – particularly injustices about race. But its meaning has been hijacked and subverted by the racists themselves.
If you follow Piers Morgan on Twitter or watch Good Morning Britain with any regularity, you won’t have missed his penchant for the word. He seems to find a way to shoehorn it into most debates (Is Bibbles Piers Morgan in disguise..?), and it is always used as a criticism. The presenter is so fond of using the word ‘woke’, he even argued with radio host James O’Brian about its true meaning. For Piers, and those who think like him, ‘woke’ is a negative attribute. It’s a pejorative term used to ridicule liberal ideologies and position them - and subtly, the people they refer to (ie: black people) - as inferior.
Twisting the meaning of this word in this way is specifically damaging to people of colour because, the origins of ‘woke’ are so inextricably tied up in recognising and fighting racism. If being ‘woke’ is a bad thing, the subtext is that speaking out about racial inequalities is a bad thing and even more subliminally, being a person of colour is a bad thing. The racism is hidden behind the veil of mocking the word, but the meaning is there.
Despite the recent spike in its usage, ‘woke’ is not a new word. It was first used in the 1940s and was created as a political term by black Americans. The expression ‘stay woke’ suggested a need to continually check in with your own awareness of these issues. Wokeness was associated with black Americans fighting racism, which is why it was so prevalent in the civil rights era. It appeared in the headline of a 1962 New York Times article, ‘If You’re Woke You Dig It” by William Melvin Kelley, and was even used by Martin Luther King.
Recently though, and In just a few short years, the meaning and connotations of the word have been shifted. Linguistics professor Jonathan Charteris-Black, from UWE Bristol, said "it could be, in part, down to what is lost in transatlantic translation. In other words, this American word just doesn’t sit right with British mindsets. It could be to do with the different cultural attitudes."
"In California, saying that you’re “woke” and proudly putting yourself out there as a socially enlightened person might be an OK thing to do. Whereas in Britain, we tend not to like the peg that sticks out. So our way of pushing it back down again is through irony".
Of course, words and phrases change their meaning all the time. The professor points to ‘right on’ as an example that followed a similar trajectory to ‘woke’. In the 1960s, ‘right on’ was a positive thing, a compliment. But when several right-wing journalists with popular papers (Notably Richard Littlejohn in The Sun) started to associate it with negative connotations, accusing socially aware liberals as being ‘too right on’, or labelling socially aware liberals as "right-on lefties", people started to use the phrase with a roll of the eyes. The professor explains that these kinds of shifts happen when other groups who oppose a cause (Ie: racists who oppose the doctrine of racial equality) feel challenged by the impact it is having and seek to damage it.
The subversion of ‘woke’ is political and aims to denigrate the word to perpetuate the very injustices it sought to eradicate in the first place. This word has power, and the people who subvert it and use it as a weapon for their own purposes are all too aware of the underlying connotations of racial and social ideologies. It is used to undermine and disparage the voices committed to fighting for social justice and the rights of minorities – and to silence these views without engaging with them.
The racists don't like 'woke' because they're scared of it.