Opinion: It's Time To Put 'Woke' To Sleep As each year comes to a close, many of us look forward to what we'll take on in the coming 12 months. But for 2019 maybe it's better to leave some things behind, including the word "woke."
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Opinion: It's Time To Put 'Woke' To Sleep

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Opinion: It's Time To Put 'Woke' To Sleep

Opinion: It's Time To Put 'Woke' To Sleep

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It's the end of the year, which means it's time to think about all of the things we don't want to take into the next one. NPR's Sam Sanders is hoping one word doesn't make it to 2019 - woke. We'll let him explain why.

SAM SANDERS, BYLINE: You've heard the word a lot by this point.




SANDERS: Woke - your annoying friend probably uses it.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: You are so woke.

SANDERS: Politicians and celebrities use it.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: To me, being woke means that you recognize.

SANDERS: Everybody uses it.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: Are you even woke?

SANDERS: I want us to stop. First, what exactly does woke mean?

EMILY BREWSTER: It's defined as aware of and actively attentive to important facts and issues, especially issues of racial and social justice.

SANDERS: That's Emily Brewster. She's an associate editor at Merriam-Webster, the dictionary. The Black Lives Matter movement is largely responsible for the rise of woke this century. The word is tied to this idea of valuing and respecting blackness. Activists used it to urge people to take issues, like the deaths of black people at the hands of police, seriously. Nicole Holliday is a linguist at Pomona College. She says before that, the word woke appeared in an essay decades ago.

NICOLE HOLLIDAY: "If You're Woke You Dig It" by William Melvin Kelley - and that was in 1962.

SANDERS: Kelley argued that once black words used to define certain aspects of blackness, like cats or dig it - once they got to white people, they were kind of over. Nicole Holliday thinks that has happened to woke this decade. It went from black, almost fringe to white and mainstream. The Internet may have sped up that process because it connects strangers with new language every day. It speeds up the lifecycle of a word.

HOLLIDAY: Some group of young people, usually young people of color, start popularizing a word. They talk to their friends who are older and their parents, whatever. So then 40-year-old, you know, executives have it. And then somebody goes to a marketing meeting. And by the time that person in the marketing meeting says that, the kids haven't said that for months or years.

SANDERS: So then you end up with MTV saying the word woke is off-limits in 2016 and an SNL skit bashing the word in 2017.


CECILY STRONG: Introducing Levi Wokes - sizeless, style neutral, gender nonconforming denim for a generation that defies labels.

SANDERS: It resembles the trajectory of the phrase politically correct.

BREWSTER: Political correctness introduces this idea that we should consider all the many people in the audience and how our words might affect them.

SANDERS: That's Emily Brewster again from Merriam-Webster.

BREWSTER: Eventually, the term was turned into this kind of - a kind of a cudgel and certainly mockery.

SANDERS: Another word once embraced by a subgroup enters the mainstream and then becomes something negative - an insult or for woke, an eye roll. There's another reason to end the word woke. When it popped up again this century, we misunderstood the entire point. Before the Black Lives Matter movement in 2008, Erykah Badu released a song called "Master Teacher."


ERYKAH BADU: (Singing) I stay woke.

SANDERS: One of the songwriters, Georgia Anne Muldrow - she said in a recent interview that we misheard the lyrics.

ELIJAH WATSON: She was saying, I'd, like, I would stay woke. But it sounds like it's a declarative I stay woke.

SANDERS: Elijah Watson interviewed her for Okayplayer. She told Watson that woke is a work in progress not the final destination.

WATSON: It implies, I'm trying my best. I'm not definitively there. And I know I'm not there yet, but I'm trying.

SANDERS: This is the problem. We've made woke a rigid state of being instead of a process of continual growth. For that reason, in 2019, let's put woke to sleep.


BADU: (Singing) I stay woke.

SANDERS: Sam Sanders, NPR News.


BADU: (Singing) I stay woke. I stay woke.

FADEL: Sam Sanders hosts the NPR podcast It's Been A Minute.

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