The Evolution of 'Woke'

Lexicon Valley's John McWhorter discusses the problem with "problematic" and tracks the shifting meaning of "cancel culture."


What does it mean to be woke? Has the word problematic become problematic? Lexicon Valley’s John McWhorter talks to Amna Khalid about the fraught vocabulary of modern censorship.


AMNA KHALID: From Booksmart Studios, this is Banished. And I’m Amna Khalid.

NEWSCASTER: Republicans are always denouncing so-called “cancel culture.”

BBC GUEST 1: I think that nobody should lose their job because of what they believe in. I think that’s the issue—
BBC GUEST 2: —but that’s what “cancel culture” is!

POLITICIAN: “Cancel culture” is eroding the very foundation of who we are as an American people.

NEWSCASTER 1: He’s woke.
NEWSCASTER 2: I’m woke.
NEWSCASTER 3: Now you’re woke but you’re like me woke!
NEWSCASTER 2: I’m woke to the woke.

FOX NEWS GUEST: So we’re woke, and we have to say woke.
NEWSCASTER: Wait, so we’re both woke? You and I are both woke?
FOX NEWS GUEST: Yeah, I think we’re woke!
NEWSCASTER: Who’s the woker of the two, would you say?

AK: “Woke” and “cancel culture” are now two terms that are now so much a part of our consciousness, that it feels like they’ve been around forever. But the reality is that they exploded only a few years ago. Like many of our most fraught cultural terms, they evolved over time, jumping from one community to another, shifting slightly in meaning or nuance. Along the way, they get weaponized, fall in and out of favor and even get canceled themselves — in other words, they are linguistically fascinating.

Who better to dig into the lexicon of Banished, than John McWhorter, the host of Lexicon Valley here on Booksmart Studios, and an esteemed professor of linguistics at Columbia University. If you’ve never heard his show, it’s an endlessly entertaining deep-dive into everything that makes language so enthralling. I started our conversation by asking him about the word woke, which I first heard in hip-hop lyrics. 

JOHN McWHORTER: Well, woke actually goes back further than many people would think. It's actually first documented in the early 60s and it was a Black slang. What it meant was politically aware of certain realities that operate largely below the surface, but have a determinative effect on, for example, the Black American condition. And so you might think, if you were you or me, that woke is about 10 years old. But actually people were saying it on the Black street long before that. It did not leave the Black street. Then, in roughly the 2000-teens, it jumped the rails and started being used by a certain kind of politically aware white person on the left. And what it meant at first in the general culture was somebody who understands certain basic leftist analysises of the world. What it really was, was a substitute for a term that had worn out. It replaced politically correct, which, if you're just old enough now, you can remember was used without irony back in the late 70s and early 80s. And what it meant was that you have a basic understanding of liberal/leftist realities. Then it became PC. PCstarted being used as a slur to ridicule the kind of person who used that kind of ideology as a bludgeon in a smug kind of way. And so you couldn't say politically correct without making somebody laugh by, say, 2010. Really, you couldn't do it by about 1990. And so woke replaced that. As recently as 2018, I was on a TV show

STEPHEN COLBERT (crowd cheering): My next guest tonight is a professor at Columbia University, who hosts one of my favorite podcasts.

JM: —talking about how woke was taking on a certain pejorative flavor.

JM ON COLBERT: When I learned it, it was still just the coolest thing: You are woke to the complexities of society and how injustice really happens. It was cool — it smelled like, roughly, marijuana and lavender. It was that kind of word. And about two seconds later, a certain kind of person started sneering: Oh, is that person woke?People from a certain side of the political spectrum are throwing at other people the idea being that you’re a smug person who thinks that your views are the ones that come from on high. That has happened during the time, roughly, that a certain person has become president, and about six months before that. I’ve found it fascinating. Woke will be all but unusable in ten years.

JM: Now, I would say that it has it. It's 2021, woke is now a word that is very much in quotation marks. Nobody would use woke in common parlance to mean that you understand the politics of Ta-Nahisi Coates. Now woke is used to make fun of people of a certain kind of leftist political persuasion who are beyond reasonable address. And so what's happened is that it has become a pejorative word, which happens to words all over the language, all over languages all the time. And so random example, reduce. Reduce used to mean to lead back to, and it could lead back to something good, something bad, something large, something small. You could reduce something to its former glory 500 years ago. That meant just take it back. Now, you could also reduce something to its former misery. It's the misery meaning that ended up taking over, that pejorative meaning. That happens a lot in language, more than what's called amelioration for reasons that we need not get into. But words tend to putrefy, essentially, and that is what happened with woke very quickly in this decade and the last one, partly because the internet makes these things come around and go around faster.

AK: If I'm hearing this right, you're saying woke was part of the Black vernacular and it had a particular political valence which has been taken over and turned around, and now it's become a derogatory term almost to call someone woke.

JM: Exactly.

AK: Nobody would say I am woke as a matter of pride. Do you see a movement to reclaim it as a positive?

JM: I can imagine doing kind of linguistic science fiction and writing about the reclaiming of the word, because that does happen with slurs. There's an example that I could give that I don't even need to. We all know. So pretend I talked about that for five minutes — but the term woke, I don't see that happening. For example, you didn't see people saying, yes, I'm a PC and I'm proud of it. People ran away from it and created something new. In 2021, it's too early to say what the new term is going to be, but I can guarantee you that by 2030 there'll be something else which starts meaning something very specific. It may emerge from Black culture and it will be generalized to mean that you've got the proper The Nation politics. I don't think it's going to happen with woke, partly because it's so imprinted now as a way of making fun of somebody. It's just at the point where if somebody said Yes, I am woke, it sounds trivial, it sounds like you don't have your own ideas and you're just looking for something to put on a T-shirt. So I think what we need to do is start listening for what the new term is going to be. These things emerge spontaneously. Nobody's going to create it on Madison Avenue, but it will certainly happen.

AK: Is there a particular moment you can point to when you think woke started taking on a pejorative valence? Was it a very purposeful appropriation by the right to discredit a particular kind of social justice awareness or social consciousness, or did it emerge out of an organic movement?

JM: Of course, the right started making fun of wokeness, and to me that's 2017, 2018. Where woke became a joke, and that was an unintentional rhyme, was last summer when even people on the left started ridiculing a particular kind of person. Wokebecame a joke in roughly June 2020. It was in the wake of the protests about George Floyd, during the quarantine at its worst, when a lot of people had very little to do and were very angry about it. It tended to focus these sorts of things. So yeah, I think we've seen that transition just over about the past year and change that woke is now unusable outside of quotation marks, just like a word like perky. You can't really say perky, you can only say perky in quotes.

AK: There are words that are used by the Black community, if I can use that for a moment and make it a monolith, to communicate in ways that remains separate from and distinct from the use of language by white people. Of course, there's a history to this. There's the history of enslaved people using particular language to communicate, words to communicate, so that their masters, quote unquote, could not understand what was being said. To what extent do you think the fact that woke will not be reclaimed is actually a continuation of that trend where words that come from the Black vernacular, become mainstream, like cool, then subsequently get dropped by the Black community that almost prides itself on coming up with a new term that is exclusive.

JM: We're not always aware of how subconscious the use of language generally is, especially when you're talking about at the level of a community. It's one thing to say that Black English represents the creativity of Black people and that when a term gets worn out, Black people make up a new term. That doesn't actually refer to a process that's been observed among human beings. The truth is that these terms tend to emerge spontaneously based on probabilistic processes. It isn't that, say, the teens are making up new slang to confuse their parents. I'm going to give you a term: diglossia. Most people in the world have two levels that they speak on, the high and the low. In America, it can be hard to quite imagine that unless you think about Black people. We’re a very boring country linguistically in many ways. But Black people have the high, the standard, the low, quote unquote, although there's nothing low about it, which is Black English. If something jumps from the low to the high, it's not that Black people think, well, now we must create something new. It's that the word no longer feels L, low, and all language is eternally creative in its own right. You need terms for things. And so next thing you know, a new term will be spontaneously invented because the old one wore out or it stopped being part of the L. It stopped feeling like us. And it's usually below the radar. Nobody could know that these things were going to happen. And then you wake up and you have some white guy playing hacky sack and using the term woke, who knew? But that means that it's no longer the guy in Chicago living in a Black neighborhood who uses that. He's going to have some other word he's using after a while.

AK: So talk to me about cancel. Where does the term cancel come from and how has the meaning of that changed over time?

JM: Well, cancel culture is a really messy term because it starts with the idea that a celebrity who produces some sort of product, writings or performance, recorded performance, is in bad odor and therefore they're going to be canceled like a TV show. And so that person's work is no longer going to be seen. They're no longer going to get hired. I think that the paradigm example would be Bill Cosby. He was cancellable. You can't hire him. You're no longer going to show the sitcom. It's no longer going to stream. I was at a store around when he was cancelled where they were literally giving away DVDs of the TV show for free. And I thought, wow, yeah, he's been canceled. And so that takes care of that. But terms are always generalizing in some way. They're ameliorating. They are pejorating. Something's going to happen to almost any term that's worth its salt. So now cancel culture is not so much about eliminating somebody from the public presence as just deciding that they are no longer fit for polite society, that we don't like them anymore. And so it's not that these people are going to go away. Our technology makes it so that it's pretty hard to cancel anybody completely anyway, but it just means that that person is a persona non grata, they are ostracized. So I think these days we're at this intermediate stage where somebody is determined as non grata, and spontaneously people say we're not trying to cancel you. And the question is, if they're not trying to cancel you, what are they doing? Because the cancelling no longer means that you don't exist. I'm not going to get specific, but about a year ago, it happened to me. I was canceled by a certain august body for, you know, reasons that people can guess. And I was told by the very nice person, we're not cancelling you. Well, of course not. You know, I've got all these writings out there, and it's not like I'm not going to be able to go to conferences and things like that. What I was subjected to was being told that I am unsavory in a very public way. That's the cancellation. So it no longer means what it means. But that's true of so much of language. Nobody’s being cancelled, but it just means that you are having a scarlet letter put upon you.

AK: How is it different from censorship or censoring someone?

JM: It's not. It's the same thing. Cancel culture is just a more vivid term. Censorship, you think more of the printed page. It doesn't sound as societal. So we say cancel culture because that sounds one, newer; two, meaner; three, less specific than censorship. I would call them different terms for the exact same thing.

AK: So I’d push back over here a little bit and to my ear and from the way it's being used, I think about censorship as something that is associated — and I'm getting into the politics of these words now — it's associated with something that the right does.

JM: Mm-hmm.

AK: Whereas cancel culture is seen as something that is a product of this wokeperformative way of saying I adhere to certain social justice values. Am I correct in kind of thinking about it in this way? People ask me what Banished is about. They immediately assume it's about cancel culture and it is. But to my mind, I always jump in, then say and censorship, because it's not just about the kinds of eliminations that are coming from this left side of the spectrum. I'm interested in things that are being cut out left, right and center.

JM: You're quite right. I hadn't thought about that. The person on the left who's accused of censorship is insulted. They feel like they're being accused of something that they're used to hurling at the other side. They often don't realize they're doing the same thing or they think that it's OK if the left does it because the left is right, correct basically. Yes, cancel culture is censorship from the left. Talk about subconscious. I never thought about this, and yet I've been using it in that way for a year.

AK: Another term that I grew up in graduate school using quite regularly and without thinking of it as a “problem” is the term problematic. In fact, one of the ways in which you recognized someone was a graduate student over lunch was when they said I'd like to problematize that. So this is another term that has kind of migrated from a different area or different field into mainstream conversation and has come to mean something again politically. When did you first encounter the word, let's start there? And then when did you start noticing that it's beginning to take on a different meaning?

JM: Problematic to me is exactly what you said. It's a graduate student in 1993 drinking their latte and talking about something that probably wouldn't interest most people who are not academics. It's the aughts where problematic becomes something someone's doing that the educated person is supposed to morally disapprove of. It seems to me that there's a certain euphemism in the word problematic, because what it usually is is a prelude to something being racist or sexist or fat shaming or something like that. But you start out calling it problematic with the implication that it's difficult, it's tricky, that you have to break something down — avoiding coming right out and being what used to be called a knee jerk liberal. Instead of just yelling it's racist, it’s sexist, I don't like it, you say, well, actually, it's kind of problematic because. I don't know who that person is, but I do, actually. And then, you know, the racism and the sexism is coming. Problematic now means blasphemous. Problematic means that you have sinned, that you're a heretic, that you should not have any Chardonnay and brie. But nobody wants to come right out and say that. We're too sophisticated to call people heretics. And so now often the way you call somebody a heretic is to say isn't he problematic? — that means that he's a witch.

AK: OK, so now we're getting into really interesting territory where I'm beginning to think of the word blasphemy. I come from a country where blasphemy means what it literally means and has always meant and has consequences. Over here, blasphemy has taken on a different meaning. It's a way of ostracizing someone from any community and what the rules are specific to that community. What does that word mean today?

JM: Well, to the extent that you have a certain kind of hyper woke person who has a religion, it's no longer an Abrahamic religion. It's not Christianity, it's not Judaism, it's not Islam. It's Electism. They have a sense that certain people are not to be tolerated for the same reason that a Christian or someone else would ban the heretic. That is what they call problematic, but really it's blasphemy. Today's blasphemy is not about God. Nobody thinks of it is taking the Lord's name in vain to say, oh, my God, anymore. That was old school blasphemy. But now I find the Middle Ages much easier to understand than I used to just, you know, going online and watching what happens to nice people all the time. That is today's blasphemy. I would almost teach a child blasphemy based on the sort of things that happened to Donald McNeil, Alison Roman, etc., as opposed to Galileo.

AK: You've coined the term “the Elect” and we just referred to it. Who are you referring to as the Elect and how exactly are you, are you using that phrase?

JM: The Elect is a term that I used to refer to a certain kind of person who has hard leftist views about the way things are supposed to go and feels that being mean to people is justifiable in the name of making the world safe for those views. And so it's not the woke, it's not the hyper woke, it's woke people who are mean, who are The Elect. It's the evangelical, prosecutorial woke. And so by The Elect, I mean the kinds of people who seek to get people fired, who support policies for Black people that hurt Black people but qualify as goodly because they are quote unquote anti-racist. For example, it is Elect to say if Black kids aren't good at standardized tests, then let's eliminate the test because it's racist rather than helping Black kids get better at tests, and that particular kind of thinking. The term is not original to me, but I find it very useful and I hope it settles in. The Elect.

AK: I come from a society where freedom of expression is, doesn't exist. There are very strict parameters to what you can and cannot say.

JM: You mean academia?

AK (laughs): That is the society I inhabit now. That was good. I mean Pakistan. In fact, that's part of my disillusionment with academia. I didn't expect it, especially not in the West and not in the US where freedom of expression is supposedly enshrined in the Constitution. Censorship from the right is something that I'm familiar with. I can even understand those tendencies within the U.S. coming from a more authoritarian mindset, from the political right. To some degree I can get that. What I find troubling, deeply troubling, is that I'm finding that kind of censorship coming from the left. So, talk about cancel culture. And I've been playing around a lot with the notion of why this is the case. And I'm going to present to you a hypothesis and ask you to tell me what you think. After much contemplation, I thought, well, maybe it's a society that has had a lot of freedom, precisely because freedom of expression is enshrined as a constitutional right. When there is so much freedom, it must necessarily produce its own unfreedom to rail against. A concept cannot exist, similarly a practice cannot exist, if it doesn't have its antithesis or antichrist. I'm beginning to wrap my head around what I'm seeing happening, particularly in academia, as this is just freedom coming full circle.

JM: Hm. I like that. I am inclined to think that there's something else involved and it's social media. I think if — it's impossible to imagine a world without it now — but if we really did go back to that time when there was just email and the whole world could not talk to itself, I think we wouldn't have this happening on the left because what it is, is a reign of terror. A lot of what goes on on the left in terms of these cancellations is based not on consensus, but on fear. People are really afraid of being called a dirty name. And so you don't speak against the minority of people who are coming over the hill with pitchforks. I think that has a lot to do with it. And what people are so afraid of really is being called a dirty thing on Twitter. It is mostly Twitter. It is mostly being called a racist. Nobody wants to be called a racist on Twitter, or Facebook or Instagram, but mostly Twitter. Fifteen years ago, if somebody didn't like something that I wrote or something that I said, they would write a letter and they would send it to my mailbox, or they would write an email to me. That's what people did, and you got used to it. Now that almost never happens. Almost nobody emails me and it's very easy to find my Columbia email. It barely ever happens because those same people, they feel the same way, they put it on Twitter where everybody can see it. That change happened in about 2012 and there's no going back from that. You can see that the impulse of a certain kind of person used to be: I wish I could tell the world that I hate this person, but instead I'm just going to send it to their email because that's the best I can do. That person now can write it in the sky and we're never going to be rid of that kind of person. So, yeah, you have a new era that started in the early 2000-teens.

AK: OK, I'm going to turn the camera upon us as academics for a moment and say one of the problems that I have right now is the erosion of academic freedom on college campuses. And I think the people who are responsible for it at the end of the day are us. It's tenured professors. And I know you don't have tenure, but you're a person with enough authority.

JM: Close enough.

AK: Close enough, so forgive me for lumping you with us, but it's tenured professors who are not speaking up, both in terms of the excesses of the administration, which is increasingly bureaucratized and corporatized, and also in terms of the kind of wider trends of the adjunctification of the faculty itself, which is a deep threat to academic freedom. So I hold tenured academics responsible for that. And it's easy to bash social media for giving fillip to nasty trends. There are nasty people out there. There is a nastiness in all of us and perhaps we feel more comfortable airing it when we're not talking to someone face to face and we can put it out.

JM: Exactly.

AK: But there is also a niceness to all of us, or at least I desperately want to believe that, right? I really do, because if we don't, I feel like I begin to lose the will to live. What's the point, right? So why do we not use social media in a way that fights against the kind of natural tendencies that it brings out? To what degree can we repurpose that and fight cancel culture and fight this tendency to shut people up by actually reclaiming that space? Maybe we can't, but I'm interested in hearing what your thoughts are.

JM: We have a moral duty as thinking people in this culture now. Fifty years ago, that duty was to understand that racism is not just calling dirty names, that sexism is not just calling dirty names, that you have to look inside of yourself. And I think practically everybody in this country learned how to do that through the 1970s to a degree that was stunning. And many people today would say that it wasn't important, but I think they either lack historical imagination or they're just not old enough to remember what things were like before. If you walked around in 1950 and talked to educated Americans about how they felt about women and how they felt about Black people, I think many people would be utterly stunned at the difference. Something happened between 1970 and 1980. Now, we have a similar thing that we need to do, which is to learn to not be so damned afraid of being called names on social media. A lot of people are clearly frightened to their socks of somebody saying something nasty to them and then being retweeted. And the truth is, it happens, it flares for a while and it goes away. And Twitter is not the world. Now, of course, some people feel that they don't want to risk their jobs, but I think for most people, it's just that they don't want to be called a dirty name and a dirty name today is you racist. And so they just hold back. And that means that the nasty guys in the schoolyard end up taking over. Even if you try to be nice on Twitter, there are some people — and they're not crazy, they're not trolls, they're not under a bridge; unfortunately, they're ordinary people who are probably very nice in real life — but people will be mean to you for being nice. You know, how dare you praise this? How dare you excuse that? That kind of person cannot be allowed to determine what Twitter is like, though. You just have to let them, you have to let them yell. And I really hope that part of the pendulum shift is that a critical mass of people will learn that you can be called a dirty name on social media, and you know the planet will keep spinning, your friends will keep liking you. It's hard to be yelled at. You get used to it. But I think we need to start learning how to get used to it more.

AK: Where do you think the fear comes from? I understand the fear when it's coming from a threat to your livelihood.

JM: Mm-hmm.

AK: What is it? I'm trying to dig to the deep roots of what are we so bloody afraid of? I've been called many things in my life, sometimes been proud of the fact that I’ve been called many things in my life, which are not necessarily nice things. Being a — aterm that I absolutely detest, but I'll use at the moment — you know, a person of color, I say things that people don't expect a person of color to say. And so then I get labeled as someone who has false onsciousness or someone who's drunk the Kool-Aid and all kinds of things. What is it what is it that we're so scared of?

JM: In a different world, you didn't want it to be said that you were godless. In this world, you don't want it to be said that you are a racist or that you are a sexist because that questions your very legitimacy as a human being. And I think you or me as people of color, we can say things about race and get called certain things. But there isn't as much of a sting, especially because, frankly, the charges are often so absurd. You know, like somebody telling me that I don't like myself. Frankly, yes, I do and everybody knows. You can tell. And I'm sure that you feel the same way. Whatever you're being called, it has nothing to do with you. But I will openly admit, I could not bear — and watch it happen now that I say this — I could not bear it getting around that I was a sexist. That's too much. If it got around that I had some sort of woman problem, that I didn't think women were men's equals, it would make me want to curl up in a corner and die. That would be more than I could risk, and I'm quite sure that I don't have that issue. But if somebody decided to start a campaign on Twitter and call me all sorts of things and distort things that I wrote, I would not be up for that. And so I can put myself in other people's place. They feel that way about race. They feel I just couldn't tolerate that. But, you know, if there were an epidemic of people being called sexist for no good reason, I would have to buck up, you know, if I had some skin in that game. And I think that's what has to happen with the racist charge within reason. You don't want to take advantage, but you can't let the people who spend their lives saying mean things on Twitter determine that entire forum because it could be used for such good. You're right. But everybody needs to get some, you see I want to say balls, but that's no good.


AK: Well, I think this entire segment has to be edited out because otherwise you're going to be branded as sexist and we are going to have a campaign. And then you use the term balls, so you just gave …

JM: Yeah, I’m, I’m gone.

AK: You’re gone. (laughing)

JM: Yeah.

AK: Thank you John McWhorter for being with us today. This was a delightful conversation. It's always a pleasure to talk to you.

JM: Thank you for having me Amna.

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Before I sign off, I must remind you — I must implore you — to comment, rate, share what you've heard here today. And not just Banished, but the other Booksmart Studios shows like John McWhorter's Lexicon Valley and Bob Garfield’s Bully Pulpit. Both programs are stimulating and incisive in their analysis.

So please share! The success of Booksmart, the impact of our work, depends as much on you as on us. 

Banished is produced by Matthew Schwartz and Mike Vuolo. I am Amna Khalid. So long.