Slang is one of the few aspects of language that has the ability to change in the blink of an eye. As soon as it’s born, it mutates, evolves, and then passes through an extensive transformative process on social media where memes, GIFs, tweets, and status updates spit out any kind of new meaning. While slang is constantly created and being reproduced, the words that make it through the social filters are few and far between. One of the best and most recent examples is the word ‘woke.’
Hang tight with us as we guide you through the word’s origin, meaning, and prevalence in today’s slang-speak and get ready for an enlightening ride.
The first appearance
The first use of ‘woke’ as a call to social action or awareness is generally attributed to the 2008 Erykha Badu song Master Teacher (Part 2 above) in which she envisions a world where there are more master teachers, followed by the phrase ‘I stay woke’. The true meaning being the song, what she wanted to communicate was that she dreams of a future where African-American men and women in the US will continue to progress for generations to come.
Naturally, the term didn’t catch fire right away. In fact, it stayed obscure for another few years appearing on Twitter only in it’s near literal form by insomniacs complaining of sleepless nights. In 2012 though, a series of events brought the term out of hibernation and gave it the new meaning.
It was badu herself that resurrected the term on her Twitter feed when she lent her support to the Russian band Pussy Riot. Members of the band were arrested while playing a queer rights rally and held without charges. Badu wrote Truth requires no belief, Stay Woke.
Around the same time, George Zimmerman shot and killed Trayvon Martin sparking protests and eventually leading to the Black Lives Matter movement. Black Lives Matter grew to be a massive social media movement throughout 2013 that took ‘woke’ along with it. The hashtags #StayWoke and woke meant that the user was aware of systemic injustices and were determined to do something about it.
Just a year into existence though the hashtag drifted into memeification. While Black Lives Matter stayed true and strong ‘woke’ began to be trivialized. People were ending tweets about the most mundane or even insulting subjects with #StayWoke. The meaning stayed the same, be aware of the powers that be, but the focus had changed from the importance of race relations in the US to include sneaker companies with multiple web sites, or soda sizes at fast food restaurants.
The inevitable post-modern shift to irony
It is seemingly inevitable that any movement that genuinely calls for change will attract those who take the call to extremes and garner irony mocking that overreach. This is the fate today for #StayWoke. Like so many other internet slang terms that ended up being co-opted by the majority, (think fleek, bruh, bae) as did woke. The difference is that ‘woke’, or #StayWoke started as a legitimate, useful term that called out for change and brought netizens together to learn more or bare witness to the stories of those being prosecuted and persecuted unfairly.
The cannibalistic nature of the internet is such that it will always eat its own memes and satirize our most serious cultural problems, but does this perhaps continue to propel a message or condescend? We’ll let you decide. #StayWoke