Will we ever be able to count on words not being corrupted? 

Published 12:03 pm Friday, March 17, 2023

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Just when it seemed time to throw in the towel over hopes that all of America would understand what “woke” means, there now is a glimmer of hope.


Let me go back to the beginning.

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I remember hearing the word “woke” being used, admittedly within a small circle, years ago. As a journalist and a writer all my life, words are to me what lumber is to a home builder. Used correctly and accurately, they help create a structure that outlasts us all. 


So naturally the use of the word “woke” in a context other than the conjugation of the verb “wake” (I wake. I woke/waked. I am waking.) was a bit jarring back then, seemingly misspoken. But the more I heard it, the more I came to understand the meaning. The word “woke” was then being used to indicate a person’s state of awareness, even though it wasn’t the correct use in a conjugation sense.


“He’s woke” or “We need to be woke” conveyed a sense of being alert to something sinister or bad. It was most often used within the African-American community.


The word in that context was added to the Oxford English Dictionary in 2017. It was added to the dictionary’s list of new words and defined as “alert to racial or social discrimination and injustice.”


Well before that, in 1962 in fact, “woke” was being used, albeit before a limited audience, by black novelist William M. Kelley, who wrote an essay titled “If You’re Woke You Dig it.” (Bonus points to those who know what “dig it” means.)


Today, “woke” has been corrupted and is being used as a label, particularly by politicians and their word handlers, to be stamped on pretty much anything they find offensive or counterintuitive to their beliefs. The word has nearly replaced “politically correct,” which now is more like “culturally correct.” Suddenly whole corporations are being labeled “woke” because they dare have a philosophy counter to a cultural one.


Words are funny things. Put in the hands of ill-intentioned people, they can be twisted and disemboweled so they are no longer recognizable when compared to their original meaning.


There was a time in my career at The Associated Press, and later newspapers, when “journalist” was instantly synonymous with a reporter who was trustworthy, honest, accurate, fair and balanced. Today, anyone with a microphone, camera or cell phone is free to call themself a journalist. Fair and balanced is not necessarily in their credo.


But maybe, just maybe, I have been shortchanging America’s collective ability to sort out this craziness. I was in doubt until a friend directed me to a new survey.  


The survey of Americans by USA TODAY/Ipsos shows that Americans by a 56-to-39 margin understand “woke” means being aware of social injustice rather than being overtly politically correct.


The poll shows that, at least for now, we are inclined to see the word as having a positive connotation, not a negative one. According to USA TODAY, the 56 percenters said “woke” means “to be informed, educated on, and aware of, social injustices.” For those of you interested in the political passport, three-fourths of Democrats and one-third of Republicans held that view.


Now when you turn on the TV to watch the non-journalists using the word as a condemnation, know that—in the best sense of the word—they don’t know what they are talking about.


Larry McDermott is a local retired journalist/farmer. Reach him at hardscrabblehollow@gmail.com