A lexicographer from Oxford English Dictionary tells us how they made it in there
In its latest update, the Oxford English Dictionary is including “post-truth” and “woke” among other new entries. The OED has four updates a year, but it’s particularly interesting that in the current climate, it’s two modern words with political connotations that have made the cut. Post-truth, which was 2016’s word of the year, is defined as, “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping political debate or public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief”. And woke – well, you, dear reader, you know what woke means. But just in case you don’t, in this case it refers to being, “‘aware’ or ‘well-informed’ in a political or cultural sense”, but especially in relation to racial inequality and recent events in the US, such as police shootings.
On their website the OED states, “#staywoke. In the past decade, that 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, 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.” Among others, they also credit writer William Melvin Kelley with an early use of the word in the context we tend to use it in today. Despite woke’s long history as a word with the definition of “politically awake”, language is traditionally fusty and those who consider themselves above slang are reticent to permit ‘new’ words to enter the official dialect. The Telegraph, however, in an effort to appear young and the opposite of fusty or embarrassing, have created a not-at-all-snarky “How Woke Are You?” quiz for the occasion.
I called Fiona McPherson, the Senior Editor of New Words at OED, to ask how they made the decision to add ‘woke’ to the OED now. She told me: “we don’t put new words in the dictionary unless we’ve got the evidence for them. So I think it just shows that certainly, both ‘post-truth’ and ‘woke’ have certainly come to the more mainstream attention in the last couple of years”, and despite woke maybe only reaching some of our vocabularies in the last year or two, “when you actually look back, ‘woke’ has got a history, it goes back to the 1960s. That often happens, a word seems to be really everywhere at one particular moment that we think of as brand new, but they have a much longer history than we thought.”
McPherson says that in terms of its use in the way that it’s being used now, ‘woke’ as an adjective was first used to mean awake and no longer asleep back in the 1800s. But in terms of its current meaning, it goes back to the 1960s. The first noted use is in the USA, in an article in the New York Times magazine where people were writing about black slang. She said, “I think they were probably quite unfamiliar to the people who were writing them. It’s changed slightly now, it means alert especially to racial or social discrimination. She added, “that’s just the way that language works. You know sometimes when we’re working on words we think, ‘these are really current and really modern’, but sometimes there actually a little bit older than you would have thought”.
The case with ‘woke’, as with a lot of slang, is that it’s a word that has been used in this context by Black Americans since the 1960s, but that everyone else sees as brand new because they’ve only just picked up on it. On this, McPherson says: “in one sense it will be new to a certain population. That also happens with words that for want of a better way of putting it, young people are using. And then suddenly an older generation becomes aware of it. It can happen for all sorts of reasons. What you think of as a new word, is new to the dictionary, rather than it necessarily being a new word”.
I ask her whether increased usage of the word woke is simply down to social media. She observes: “things like social media and the internet are certainly a way of spreading the usage of a word. Before the internet, if anyone can remember, words obviously got into newspapers and would be spoken maybe on TV and in films. But now these words and their usage is sort of multiplied massively because of this quickness behind social media. That’s the reason a word would go into the dictionary, but it’s probably a reason why words become or seem to become more commonplace more quickly – brought to the attention of more people”.
On the controversy that ‘modern’ word entries often cause, and that ‘woke’ undoubtedly will, she explains: “I think the problem is that words have changed their meaning ever since the first word entered the language, but if words didn’t change their meaning then the language would die. I think this often happens with words that have changed their meaning, if you’ve been using a word perfectly happily and suddenly it has this new meaning, I’m thinking of – to use a really hackneyed example – ‘sick’. ‘Sick’ for a large part of the generation, means something not good. Now it can kind of be used as a term of approval by younger people, and that’s disconcerting. I think it’s something to do with living through it, whereas we’ll all be using words today which used to mean something else say in the 17th century”.
As ‘woke’ began its life as a slang term that was more likely to be spoken than written, the OED is looking for additional examples of use of the word in the sense of ‘alert to racial and social injustice’ from prior to 2008, but ideally earlier than 1962. If you can help at all or are aware of transcripts, letters, pamphlets etc containing the word in this context, contact the OED here.