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Stephen Lewis: The grammar and Politics of “woke” | Lifestyles

Stephen Lewis

My friend Brad says, “Shouldn’t it be ‘woken’”?

He is talking about the ubiquitous “woke” in our politics these days.

He has a point.

Sort of.

English has never made up its mind concerning the various words that describe our brain’s rising from sleep. We have wake, awake, and waken : I wake at 7, I awake at 7, or I awaken at 7. Note, the adverb “up” is often added to choice number one to produce “wake up.”

Apart from contemporary political discourse, “woke” is the past tense form of “wake,” just as “spoke” is the past tense form of “speak.” Following that pattern, both words should form a past participle by adding an “n” to the past form: “spoke” becomes “spoken” and “woke” becomes “woken.” Past participles regularly function as adjectives, thus an individual is “well spoken.” It follows that someone can be described as a “woken” individual. However, in our present political discourse the past tense verb rather than the past participle is made to function as an adjective. It’s as though instead of describing an individual as well “spoken,” we would say that person is well “spoke.”

So, the grammar is clear, and Brad is correct. But contemporary political usage of “woke” does not follow the ordinary rules of English word formation. According to a note published by the Oxford English Dictionary, this current usage tracks back to African American vernacular in the phrase “stay woke,” an admonishment to keep alert to the dangers people of color could expect to encounter. Employing the verb from as an adjective is common in slang usage where it provides a degree of emphasis.

A little digging online turned up references to “woke” in this sense in the song lyrics of Lead Belly in the 1930s. That usage rose to a new prominence as part of the Black Lives Matter, which seems to be a natural connection. The meaning has now broadened to suggest an awareness of issues in a variety of contexts beyond the original focus on race.

When we move from the history and meaning of the word into its use in present day politics, we must switch to thinking about the word’s connotative value. Denotation tells us what the word refers to while connotation informs us of people’s attitudes toward what the word denotes.

Looking at the word this way, we see that “woke” as an adjective applied to a person who is aware of, and concerned about, certain social issues, ranging from race to climate change, and other stops in between, carries a positive connotative value among those folks who share those concerns and see them as problems that should be addressed through governmental action.

On the other hand, those who do not see these issues the same way, and in any case do not believe it is the job of the government to become involved see ”wokeness” in a negative way as the problem, rather than the issues the “woke” folk have made central to their view of the role of the government.

In discussing positive and negative connotations, we are not talking about right vs. wrong. Rather, these connotative values express attitudes. In any society, there is often general agreement on what is a good thing and what is not. But how to respond to those things, particularly, the bad things is where we as a people now disagree often in strong measure.

Which takes us beyond Brad’s question concerning the word’s grammatical form to its function as a verbal cudgel in our ongoing argument concerning the identification of problems and the role of our government in addressing them.

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