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  • Writer's pictureDoug Weiss


Etymology has long been an interest, admittedly as a consequence of learning in my early teens that J.R.R Tolkien was a professor of etymology at Oxford and Dr. Elwin Ransom, the principal character in C.S. Lewis' science fiction trilogy modeled on Tolkien, was –not surprisingly, a philologist. Those of you who know of Tolkien and Lewis’ friendship know that they were two of the more famous members of the Inklings, an informal society at Oxford that included authors, Charles Williams and Owen Barfield as well as other well known members.

I can only wonder what they would have made of the present use and derivation of the word ‘woke’ which has become a ubiquitous term of derision especially among politicians and those who identify as conservatives. At least one Presidential aspirant has made wokeness a catchall label for anyone who says or does something that excites indignation among prospective voters of a certain orientation. But he is not alone in employing this new and intentionally vague term as a broad brush with which to paint opponents and anyone with whom one happens to disagree.

If we are to believe at least one poll, nearly 60% of Americans believe that to be woke means one is “informed, educated and aware of social injustices.” Nevertheless, nearly 40% have an entirely opposite view. For them, to be woke is to be “overly politically correct.” As you can see, agreement on what the word actually means varies widely. In large measure that is because it has become a dog whistle among GOP candidates for office who have used it to label, among other things, Cancel Culture, Critical Race Theory, socially conscious businesses, political correctness, those who support gender and reproductive rights, diversity, inclusion and a long, long list of other suspect ideologies. It would seem to be a Republican of standing these days one must be against all things woke—which in itself is a fascinating and extraordinary contradiction.

The use of woke in a positive sense appears to have originated among African Americans as a way to describe those who were aware of racial discrimination and injustice but its use as a pejorative began sometime in the run up to the 2020 election where it was first employed as a label for adherents of Black Lives Matter and by association, anyone who supported so-called progressive views. It’s hard to say what precisely it means today as the word has a highly fluid quality. The only point of agreement among those who use the word is that it represents something very, very bad. Wokeness has been called a “virus more dangerous than the pandemic” by one presidential wannabe, while another describes a dark conspiratorial menace, the “woke-industrial complex”, and an incipient anti-woke caucus is forming in Congress among the more inflamed and aggrieved members of the GOP.

Those who casually and pointedly use woke to malign have adopted the word without the need for agreement about its meaning precisely because it a rhetorical tool. It offers a wink and nod to those who harbor grievances of both a racial and social nature. So, to bring this back to etymology, we have a word that in its most common use represents a positive attribute—to be awake, to be aware, and to be watchful, being used to say that those who are in effect conscious are a threat. Better to be asleep, lulled into acceptance of policies and ideologies that repress, revert, and revile.

In The Origins of Totalitarianism, Hannah Arendt says” before mass leaders seize the power to fit reality to their lies, their propaganda is marked by its extreme contempt for facts as such, for in their opinion fact depends entirely on the power of the man who can fabricate it.” She might have added that power is far easier to seize from those who are asleep.

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