David: For years, many on the right have been lambasting a certain kind of progressive sensibility. Think about the ubiquity of political correctness in the 1990s, endless fodder for Rush Limbaugh and talk radio. The furor over PC was nothing compared to the political battle over woke.
Donald Trump: You know what woke means, it means you're a loser. Everything woke--
Donald Trump: Everything woke. It's true. Everything woke turns to shit.
Donald Trump: Okay. It's true.
David: That's Donald Trump in 2021, and then next year, Ron DeSantis signed into law a controversial Stop Woke Act in the state of Florida. It was absolutely the centerpiece of his recent reelection victory speech.
Ron DeSantis: We fight the woke in the legislature, we fight the woke in the schools, we fight the woke in the corporations. We will never ever surrender to the woke mob. Florida is where woke goes to die.
David: In Washington in the House of Representatives, there's talk of forming an anti-woke caucus.
Speaker 4: Where do you start on an anti-woke caucus?
Speaker 5: Most Republicans are now awakened to this fact that wokeness is weakness. It's a cancer that's eating America from inside out. You look at the recruiting numbers in the United States military, way off of its goals because--
David: For conservatives now, wokeness is the root cause of everything negative, from lower military recruitment to deadly mass shootings, as one senator insisted, after the shooting in Uvalde, Texas. What does woke actually mean? We asked a few people.
Speaker 6: My initial thoughts on the word woke were really benign. There were words of warning to be aware of your surroundings.
Speaker 7: I've always thought it sounded a little silly, even when it first popped up, just the word, it still implies that everybody else is asleep and everybody else is the problem, but I'm not.
Speaker 8: I like the woke concept because I feel like more people should be aware of their surroundings and what's going on in their community. I feel there's a reason why things are the way they are.
Speaker 9: I couldn't tell you when I first heard it, but the context was always with Black people. Black people were the only ones that were using the word woke, or making any reference to staying woke, always Black people.
Speaker 10: Then I had a coworker who would sing stay woke.
Speaker 11: To be honest, any associations I have with what it meant pre, I don't know, 2020 have been totally supplanted by the fact that it's a polemic now. When I hear it, I just access what's been taken and I don't really access what the source of the word was. It's always with a sardonic tone, it's always with air quotes. It's often people in my milieu who still associate themselves with progressivism, but are using the term in this weird way that feels like they've also absorbed what the Right in America have co-opted it to be. Now that's their primary frame of reference.
Speaker 12: Wokeness calls out to people who are skeptics and cynical, that yes, everything is effed up, and this is a problem, and that's a problem. That person's a problem and you think like that, that's a problem, and every white person is racist. We need to cancel all this stuff. It gave power to people who, to me, just had a lot of negativity to spew.
Speaker 13: I currently have a very good friend who is white, who every time I talk to him, complains about how woke his workplace is. He works at the Navy, the United States Navy, which is to say you can see what somebody is so upset about because it's like, "What is the issue?"
David: To get a deeper insight on how such an ambiguous term became so powerful in this country and well beyond, I spoke with Tony Thorne. He's a linguist and a lexicographer based in the UK, and he wrote the Dictionary of Contemporary Slang. Slang is definitely his thing.
Tony Thorne: Technically, this language is quite sophisticated. It uses metaphors, metonymy, synecdoche, rhetoric, sound symbolism. It's technically quite sophisticated. Even if it's non standard language that many people see as deficient or incorrect slang, it's an important part of society whether you like it or not.
David: Tony, when did you start hearing or becoming aware of the word that is now ubiquitous, woke.
Tony Thorne: I came across woke, I think at the time of Black Lives Matter, when that movement and that phenomenon started to trend, so probably around 2014. The word, of course, had been around for much longer, but that's when it started trending on social media and in discussions of politics and culture.
David: My understanding of the word is that it's been around for a very long time, particularly in the Black community, particularly in the United States.
Tony Thorne: It actually probably goes right back to the 19th century, because woke, it's a non standard, therefore, not really correct form of the verb to wake or awaken. It's a non standard past participle so instead of saying I was woken up, or I was awakened, not just Black people or people of color, but also, I think, southern white speakers in the southern states of the US would have said this, "I got woke. I was woke." It's a dialect. It's a informal dialect, but it was very much part of African American Vernacular English.
David: When does it take on its political sense of awareness?
Tony Thorne: I think in conversation, it probably happened in the '60s, but the earliest record we can find of it, I think [unintelligible 00:06:51] was in 1971, there was a play produced in the US by someone called Barry Beckham called Garvey Lives, of talking about Marcus Garvey, that Black liberationist. In this play, they repeated the phrase, Mr. Garvey says, "I must stay woke, I must be woke." That was 1971. The word still didn't become common, wasn't used by many people publicly, I think, until 2008, when a singer called Erykah Badu produced the song called Master Teacher. Part of that song, chorus, used the word stay woke, I must stay woke, or you must stay woke.
Tony Thorne: It was 2008 that it transferred into popular culture, I think, in the US, not in the UK, we didn't hear about it until Black Lives Matter popularized. The references to woke before 2016, '17, '18 were straightforward, it means socially aware, it means empathetic. Afterwards, the definitions changed to it means self righteous, it means pretending to be socially aware. The term has already become twisted, if you like, become difficult to use. Then, the Right, the conservative Right, ceases hold of this word in order to jeer at what they see as the self righteous Left.
Speaker 15: Okay, one house lawmaker taking on a new battle to combat wokeness across the country, which he calls the greatest domestic threat facing America. I think he's right.
David: Now when I pick up the Right Wing press, I see Fox News, I see the Daily Mail in Britain, woke is the center of the Right Wing platform, not any particular fiscal policy. When I hear Ron DeSantis, it's all about we are the center of the anti-woke movement. That's what the rhetoric of the campaign is, because it seems to connect more easily than complicated policy prescriptions about foreign policy or domestic policy. Am I right?
Tony Thorne: I think you're absolutely right, linguistically. I think woke is a very interesting term right now, because I think that it's an unusable word although it is used all the time, because it doesn't actually mean anything, rather like I think in the US, antifa has come, but perhaps it did mean something, perhaps it did describe an actual grouping, but it's come to be a shorthand for everybody we disagree with, and I think woke has become a lazy slur.
David: Are we fighting about language more than we did before?
Tony Thorne: Yes. What has happened to public language, public discourse, the language used in the media, at least, and on social media, which is the new phenomenon, what I think has happened in the last decades is this, if you want even perhaps your opponents in the media to reproduce your message, you need to cultivate them, and you need to join in with them in the messaging procedure. Bill Clinton, then emulated by Tony Blair, picked up spin and the notion of the spin doctors, but then what happened is this same process evolved and became more and more, if you like, divisive so that then you have Steve Bannon advising Donald Trump.
Shortly after, the same thing happened, Bannon's playbook was picked up enthusiastically by Dominic Cummings, who played the same role for Boris Johnson. Only now it's different, it's not spin anymore. It's something far more aggressive. Bannon himself used terms like fire hosing, like flooding the zone. What he meant by that was overwhelming your opponents with a barrage of messages using very strong language, not simply to counter their arguments.
It wasn't about just putting your own spin, your own bias on some piece of news. It was about destroying their credibility, denigrating them, and overwhelming them so that your opponents become unable to express themselves or even unable to understand the public discourse. If you see what I'm getting at, it's a process which when we look back is perhaps a coherent evolution of public language, political language, contentious language, but it has now reached the stage of divisiveness. What I call toxic terminology, and weaponize words, which is far, far, far more aggressive and difficult to negotiate than it was 20 years ago.
David: You fully expect that woke will be the dominant term on the Right as we head toward elections in 2024?
Tony Thorne: It seems that the Right-- I mean, if I look at it from their point of view, why should they let go of it? Why should they abandon it just because it's meaningless? Because it works. This is exactly Steve Bannon's and Dominic Cummings'-- Dominic Cummings won Brexit with this tactic, with this playbook. Don't argue with them, don't counter their arguments, don't present facts, just demolish them with whatever words you can find that work.
That's what woke is still working, because for people in the UK, I think if you go into a bar or you're talking to your neighbor across the garden fence, you'll hear a lot of ordinary people who may not be bigots, or may be bigots, but who picked this term up and use it quite cheerfully, and the Left can't do anything about it. The Left can't stop them using it.
David: Finally, are there any new words that you're hearing that we're not maybe as aware of that are joining woke as toxic terminology?
Tony Thorne: There's a comical term that is used in the UK, which I don't think is ever used in the US, which is gammon, G-A-M-M-O-N. Gammon is a boiled ham that was a kind of proletariat meal that not very sophisticated people eat. A gammon means a red faced, angry, white, old bigot. The image they're trying to evoke is the boiling hot rage and the bright orange red complexion of this furious Right Wing guy with no hair and a huge beer belly.
Again, like woke, it's a very useful shorthand because we don't have another word in the English language, in slang, even, that covers all those connotations, white, angry, bigoted, Right Wing, middle aged or old. All of those features of that word, so we had to invent one. The Left invented gammon, sometimes elaborated into gammonista. The Left does it too.
David: Tony Thorne, thank you so much. That was wonderful.
Tony Thorne: [chuckles] It was a pleasure. I apologize if I became heated. [laughs]
David: Tony Thorne is the author of the Dictionary Of Contemporary Slang. By the way, we published a profile last year of Ron DeSantis, which touched on his anti-woke crusade and a great deal more. That profile was by Dexter Filkins, and you can find it at NewYorker.com.
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