What Does “Woke” Mean, and How Did the Term Become So Powerful?

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For years, many on the right have been lambasting a certain kind of progressive sensibility denoted with the term “political correctness”—endless fodder for Rush Limbaugh and others in the nineteen-nineties. But those semi-comic tirades were nothing compared with the serious political fight against “woke.” Florida’s governor, Ron DeSantis, for example, recently signed a so-called Stop WOKE Act into law, and made the issue the center of his midterm victory speech. In Washington, there has been talk in the House of forming an “anti-woke caucus.” “I think ‘woke’ is a very interesting term right now, because I think it’s an unusable word—although it is used all the time—because it doesn’t actually mean anything,” the linguist and lexicographer Tony Thorne, the author of “Dictionary of Contemporary Slang,” tells David Remnick. “The references to ‘woke’ before 2016, 2017, 2018 were kind of straightforward. It means ‘socially aware,’ ‘empathetic,’ ” Thorne says. “Then the right, the conservative right, seizes hold of this word,” to heap blame on it for everything from deadly mass shootings to lower military recruitment.

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