What does Woke mean? Origins and definitions explored

The term woke has entered the world of politics in recent years, but many are still wondering what does woke mean?

Two black women at a Black Live Matter protest cupping their hands around their mouths and shouting
(Image credit: Getty Images)

'Woke' is being used across social media and current affairs, and not for its original meaning of waking from sleep. So, what does woke mean?

As language changes and society evolves, new ideas and concepts come to the forefront, bringing new words with them. Sometimes it can feel hard to keep up with these phrases entering the mainstream, from what does asexual mean (opens in new tab) and what does demisexual mean (opens in new tab) to what is gaslighting (opens in new tab)?

Woke is no different and - to make it even more confusing - it's a word that already has an existing meaning that's different to its slang definition. With the term becoming more and more widespread in modern debates, we've explained what does woke mean, where it comes from and everything else you need to know about the word.

What does Woke mean?

The word woke is used to describe a person who is well-informed and aware of social issues, usually relating to issues of discrimination and injustice. The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines the term as "aware of and actively attentive to important facts and issues (especially issues of racial and social justice)."

In 2017, the Oxford English Dictionary (opens in new tab) added the term, saying "In the past decade, the meaning [of woke] has been catapulted into mainstream use with a particular nuance of 'alert to racial or social discrimination and injustice', popularised through the lyrics of the 2008 song Master Teacher by Erykah Badu (opens in new tab), in which the words 'I stay woke' serve as a refrain, and more recently through its association with the Black Lives Matter movement, especially on social media."

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Where does the work 'Woke' come from?

The word woke was first used in the 1800s, but back then it was only in relation to the act of not being asleep. The politically aware meaning of 'woke' was first used in 1962 in a New York Times article about black slang.

The article was written by African-American novelist William Melvin Kelley (opens in new tab) and was titled 'If You're Woke, You Dig It' (opens in new tab). The article was accompanied by a glossary called 'phrases and words you might hear today in Harlem' - a neighbourhood in the north of New York City where many African-Americans live.

Ten years later, a character in the Barry Beckham play Garvey Lives! says he’ll ‘stay woke’. The line reads "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."

'Woke' is heavily used in reference to the fight against racism and has been widely used as slang in African-American communities.

In 2008, Erykah Badu's song Master Teacher (opens in new tab) used the phrase 'I stay woke', and in 2012 Badu tweeted (opens in new tab) "Truth requires no belief. Stay woke. Watch closely," in support of a Russian feminist group.

The word 'Woke' and Black Lives Matter

Use of the word 'woke' first entered the mainstream in 2012, with the Black Lives Matter movement and the hashtag #staywoke.

In 2012, unarmed African-America teenager Trayvon Martin was shot dead in Florida by neighbourhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman. The incident sparked the Black Lives Matter movement after Zimmerman was acquitted of second-degree murder in 2013. 

In 2014, the hashtag #staywoke took off again after another unarmed black teenager, Michael Brown, was shot dead by a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri. Though the former officer, Darren Wilson, fired a total of 12 bullets, no charges were brought against him.

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Is woke an insult?

The term 'woke' has become weaponised - often by right-wing groups - and used to mock those who campaign for social justice, in a similar way to the term 'politically correct' is sometimes used.

In January 2021, Piers Morgan labelled the people calling for the movie Grease to be banned for sexism 'woke idiots' in a tweet (opens in new tab). Similarly, Jeremy Clarkson criticised Lewis Hamilton for being 'woke' in an article for the Sun (opens in new tab) where he talked about the F1 driver's stance as an environmentalist.

The term 'woke police' has also sprung up recently, and is used to negatively describe those who see themselves as woke, while 'woke washing' describes companies with ethically or morally dubious practices capitalising on social movements. 

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