McWhorter’s first NYT essay: The origins of “woke” as a pejorative

August 18, 2021 • 9:15 am

If you subscribe to the New York Times, you can sign up for a twice-weekly essay in your email by John McWhorter (go here to subscribe), which, though also on the paper’s op-ed page isn’t available for free viewing. Although McWhorter fretted about the effect on his academic duties of writing two longish pieces per week, it’s hard to resist when the Gray Lady calls.

His first essay, which as a subscriber you can get for free by clicking below, is an essay on the origin of the term “woke”. Once a term of approbation used by blacks, is now a pejorative word used by many to mean what “politically correct” used to mean: annoying and over-the-top flaunting of liberal virtues.  But how did its meaning change?

I have to say that, while instructive, McWhorter’s essay is not nearly as engaging as the pieces he writes on his own website, “It bears mentioning“. That’s undoubtedly because he can’t be as incendiary about race in the NYT as he can at Substack. But beyond that, I can’t make a lot of sense out of McWhorter’s explanation of how “woke” changed from an expression of solidarity and awareness among black people into a term of mockery among white people and those of other ethnicities.

Here’s his chronology and line of argument.

First, “woke” has been part of black argot for a long time. McWhorter notes that Lead Belly uses the phrase “stay woke” in a 1938 recording, meaning “black people: be alert to physical danger.” Over the next decades it kept a positive connotation as expressing empathy for black issues. It first appeared in the NYT in 1962, and, says McWhorter, was probably adopted in the 1980s by whites as a sign of racial empathy. It was still a positive term about 6 years ago, but then something happened: it became a replacement for the term “politically correct,” which itself may have started out as a positive term (I don’t remember it being used that way), which had long ago became a sneering reference to mindless adherence to Leftist ideology.

The horizontal leap of “woke” from black to white parlance, like the transfer of a gene, kept its function intact. It was, as they say, a cultural appropriation by whites of black street talk, like the word “salty” for “irritable.” So how did it wind up changing its meaning and turning from a positive term to this?:

No more. These days, “woke” is said with a sneer. It’s a prisoner in scare quotes as often as not (“Why ‘wokeness’ is the biggest threat to Democrats in the 2022 election”) and typically uttered with a note of condescension somewhere between the way comedians used to talk about hippies and the way anybody talks about, well, rather than a word beginning with “a” you’ll find discussed, among other places, here, I will sub in “jerks.”

Indeed, that’s how I use it, and have been called out by some readers for that. Is it racist to use the term given that it came from black argot and used to have a positive spin? I don’t think so, because although it was taken from black jargon, it’s not applied solely, or even exclusively, to blacks. It means the same thing as “politically correct”, which is a general sneer at the Left, regardless of race.

McWhorter falls down on two counts in this piece. First, and less important, he’s discursive, throwing in a lot of material irrelevant to the question at hand, like the new usage of “racial reckoning” and “problematic”. Those terms are fascinating on their own, but have nothing to do with the change of “woke” (well, a few of us use “problematic” as a sneer). But one gets the feeling that McWhorter—who had complained earlier about having to write long-form essays twice a week—was padding the piece with irrelevant stuff.

More important, he doesn’t clearly explain, at least to me, how woke changed its connotation from good to bad. It appears to have something to do with the Right starting to make fun of the term, just as they supposedly did with the term “politically correct.” But then the explanation of changing meaning doesn’t make a lot of sense to me.

McWhorter starts by reaffirming that “wokeness used to refer to views that “any reasonable person” should have:

In a view like that, there is, inevitably, a certain self-satisfaction. And in some of those holding this kind of view, that self-satisfaction will express itself in dismissal and abuse of those ungifted with the third eye in question. The result will be resistance, much of it no less pretty, and this was why, just a few years after my college friend used the term, “politically correct” had become the slur “P.C.,” hurled at the left from the right and even from the center.

“Woke” has just undergone the same process: Those bristling at being accused of not being woke have pushed back to the point of leaving the term in bad odor. Certainly “woke” has a racial substrate, but the larger process here is the race-neutral euphemism treadmill, a term I am ripping off from Steven Pinker. A well-used word or expression is subject to ridicule or has grimy associations. A new term is born to replace it and help push thought ahead. But after that term spends some time getting knocked around in the real world, the associations the old term had settle back down, like gnats, on the new one. Yet another term is needed. Repeat.

This was how we got from “politically correct” to “woke.” This was the path from “crippled” to “handicapped” to “disabled” to “differently abled.” Certainly it can be about race matters, as “slum clearance” became “urban renewal.” But just as often, it’s things more race neutral. There was a time when one called a trade union a combination, and the draft was often called conscription. The old words had, for better or for worse, menacing associations that made it seem useful to sub in other ones.

In other words, people started using “woke” in a negative way because those who used it positively were arrogant and condescending. Ergo, it was subject to ridicule. And in this McWhorter may be correct. But then McWhorter reverts to the old term “politically correct,” which I don’t remember ever having been used positively. (Perhaps it was before my time.) So, he implies “woke” became negative because for some reason it was needed to replace the negative term “politically correct.”

Now McWhorter is a linguist, so I hesitate to say his explanation is muddled.  Did the term become negative as a way of making fun of arrogant people who used it? Or was it needed as a replacement for the term “politically correct”, which was itself getting obsolete and overused? The analogy with the change “crippled” through “handicapped” to “differently abled” is not apt, because “crippled” has a negative connotation (which the original “woke” didn’t), while “differently abled” is a term that arose to try to express empathy with the disabled. Yes, some people mock “differently abled”, but it’s often used positively, while “woke” has become wholly negative. Pinker’s “euphemism treadmill”, at the link, doesn’t clarify matters much, for it explains such changes as ones meant to unload the negative freight carried by words, misguided as such changes may sometimes be. But “woke” is not like “Negro” or “crippled”. It’s a positive term that took on a negative meaning, and not as a euphemism.

I remain confused. If McWhorter wanted to say that “woke” became negative as a reaction to snobs who used it positively, well, that takes just one sentence.

McWhorter’s column is good, but discursive and less clear than it could be—something unusual for a man who pulls no punches. I blame it on the NYT, and on McWhorter’s desire to write in a less incendiary way and in a longer form. I hope he continues these pieces, as his thoughts deserve a much wider audience than they get from Substack. But he should at least return a bit to the tone and style of the pieces on his own site, or in his conversations with Glenn Loury on “The Glenn Show.”

It has not escaped my notice that I may have misunderstood what McWhorter’s trying to explain; after all, my insomnia kicked in big time last night and it’s hard for me to think. Readers are welcome to correct any misapprehensions of fuzziness of thought on my part.

33 thoughts on “McWhorter’s first NYT essay: The origins of “woke” as a pejorative

  1. Sometimes hard to remember where terms come from or go. Bill Maher’s show Politically Correct started about 1993 and ended quickly after he demonstrated how the meaning was put into action.

    1. “Politically Incorrect” was Maher’s show that ran from 1993-2002 and according to an interview, ended because to keep it going he felt the need to ask every well known person he met if they wanted to be on the show. He said he started feeling like a door to door insurance salesman (IIRC) and so decided to end it. I can’t say if there were other reasons, or if that is the actual reason but that it is the only one he stated.

      I watched occasionally if I happened to find it on and usually found it entertaining (an episode with a female fashion model and a NFL receiver discussing the merits of polygamy vs those of polygyny is one I recall enjoying).

      Not sure that running for 9 years counts as “ended quickly” but I guess it depends on what you compare it to.

  2. One of the problems with terms such as “woke” and “politically correct,” is that once they are established as pejorartives, issues that need to be addressed or discussed are moved under their umbrella so that they can be quickly dismissed with no action.

    An example would be the idea that police departments need to be reformed in order to address the racism in practice. Now, any such discussion is put under the same umbrella as “defunding the police” or “all cops are bastards.” It also makes it easier to focus on speech suppression from the left while ignoring bills to limit education from right wing legislatures (especially when it comes to the University of Wisconsin – Madison,) or forbidding the teaching of Critical Race Theory.

    Shutting discussion down by calling a subject “Wokeness” is as effective as the Wokerati demanding deplatforming for potentially hurt feelings.

    1. An example would be the idea that police departments need to be reformed in order to address the racism in practice.

      Do you think that there still is a lot of racism in police departments? A few decades ago, yes lots; these days, it’s less clear.

  3. I haven’t yet read McWhorter’s NYT piece but perhaps I will. As far as “politically correct” being used positively, I don’t remember that either but I do remember it being used in a somewhat neutral way. Back around the mid 80s I remember being expected to abide by the euphemisms of the day and this was called being “politically correct”. It bothered me because of the treadmill phenomenon but, within limits, I was ok being compliant. Of course, back then anyone who was policing our word use was doing it gently. Now, using the wrong word draws a death sentence according to the Woke. I think the placement of “politically correctness” on the positive-negative scale has been in accordance with the punishment for breaking its rules.

    1. Back around the mid 80s I remember being expected to abide by the euphemisms of the day and this was called being “politically correct”. It bothered me because of the treadmill phenomenon but, within limits, I was ok being compliant.

      I had a colleague who was running for county commissioner, and he asked if I would be his ‘PC Police’ and read for offense any of his statements before they went out. It was a bit of a joke, and also serious. He was a GOP Good Old Boy type, running in a red county with a purple leaning. With a university, a college, a wine industry and art he didn’t want to alienate the lefty folks. As the sole firm ‘lefty person’ I was happy to help.

  4. Leninists definitely used the term politically correct in a “positive” way. As n the line taken by the Mensheviks is not politically correct.

    1. I think le mot juste among Leninists was “counterrevolutionary” rather that “politically incorrect.”

      1. Lenin and Stalin and Mao used politically correct. The policy of the American Communist Party is politically correct. Used without irony in Moscow in 1930. Used by Lenin before that. See Ellis, Frank. The Journal of Social, Political, and Economic Studies; Washington Vol. 27, Iss. 4, (Winter 2002): 409-444.

        1. Fair enough, though, per the example in your original comment, “counterrevolutionary” was the term the Bolsheviks specifically applied to the Mensheviks. See, e.g., Antonov-Saratovsky, Vladimir. The Trial of the Mensheviks: The verdict and sentence passed on the participants in the counter-revolutionary organization of the Mensheviks (1931).

  5. I don’t recall “politically correct” being used as a blanket term about the Left in general, but about certain, arguably empty acts of renaming/redefining of things that had almost a performative character to it…at least in the eye of those who disparaged them. One wouldn’t call the push for universal healthcare or improved social services “politically correct”, But things like “Person of Color” as opposed to Black, when calling someone a “colored person” was long since considered inappropriate…things that seemed to do little of actual substance, but which were enforced by opprobrium and rejection in some circles. I do pretty much remember it always being at least mildly disparaging as a term, unlike “woke” and in this I concur with PCC(E).

  6. … it (“woke”) became a replacement for the term “politically correct,” which itself may have started out as a positive term (I don’t remember it being used that way), which had long ago became a sneering reference to mindless adherence to Leftist ideology.

    I don’t recall “politically correct” ever being a term of approbation. It seems to have started life steeped in a mild antipathy — along the lines of “bien pensant” — then to have grown ever more pejorative as it became associated with language-policing and shrunk to its initials “PC.”

  7. Thanks to PCC from one too stingy to subscribe to the NYT. I detected no fuzziness of thought in your appraisal, but if ever there was good excuse for struggling with a definition of woke it would be if you were suffering from insomnia…

  8. The movie PCU, a decent send-up of politically correct campuses, came out way back in 1994. It was based on the writers’ negative experiences with political correctness while attending college in the late 80s.

    So the term “political correctness” or “PC” has been a bit of a punching bag for quite a while. Was there ever a time when someone could have said “I’m politically correct” with genuine pride and no sense of irony? Maybe this was possible for like a 5 month period in 1974?

  9. Anti-vax Cardinal Burke is on a ventilator. Suggested headline: “Pro lifer defies his god by attempting suicide by covid.”

    1. I don’t think this comment is germane to this post, but either way, I wonder if he’ll change his tune if he survives? He’s such a hateful human. At least for now he can’t spew his verbal shit across the twitterverse.

  10. Now McWhorter is a linguist, so I hesitate to say his explanation is muddled.

    As do I. But I also found McWhorter’s claim (for which he offers no authority) “that ‘salty,’ as in ‘irritable,’ [is] another Black expression that white people have taken on of late” a bit dubious.

    I’d always understood “salty” to be of nautical derivation, as in the type of course language used by sailors, or the rough attitude some tend to exhibit when making port after a long voyage (or as in the term for someone who’s spent a lifetime at sea — “old salt”).

    1. That was my understanding of “salty,” too. “Old salt” and “salty dog” are terms that come to mind readily, but they may refer more to being at sea than being irritable.

  11. Just to agree with the comment by B. Ickes above. I believe that ‘politically correct’ dates back to the American Communist Party prior to WWII. As used within the party, it was not a pejorative; it described someone who was in agreement with the positions of the COMINTERN.

  12. I’m a Boomer and don’t recall hearing “politically correct “ as anything but negative. For that matter, the first time I heard or became acquainted with “woke” it was used as a put down in the same manner.

  13. According to Wiktionary:

    In the 1970s [politically correct] was adopted by wider left-wing politics. The first known use in this sense was by Toni Cade in her 1970 anthology The Black Woman. It was subsequently used in a statement by Karen DeCrow in December 1975 in her capacity as president of the National Organization for Women.

    In the 1980s it acquired the pejorative sense when used to mock conformist liberal academics, their stereotypical political views and alleged attempts to control language.

    It cites William Safire’s 2008 book Safire’s Political Dictionary (Oxford University Press, pages 555–556) as the basis for these assertions.

  14. To be a noble one, you must be groomed and educated as a noble. You must, from your bearing, be distinguishable from the commoners. All this political correctness and wokeness is just performative elitism, and it is picked up, surprise surprise, from elite institutions. Because of pretend egalitarianism, the mark of the Superior Man must be your highly developed sensitivity and noblese oblige toward the little people. Just as in former days, the Holy Roman Emperor was the Protector of the Jews, so must the Noble Ones defend all the intersectional unfortunates in the Empire. The Lone Ranger protecting the Indians against the hick yoeman farmers on the Frontier.

    Unfortunately, noble ones who run around scolding commoners are perceived as condescending toffs, and so terms like “political correctness” and “wokeness” take on negative connotations, but maybe that is because the woke are a bunch of condescending toffs?

    Millennials appear to be really insecure about status, and it appears easier to get into an over-priced liberal arts college than it is to accomplish anything, so I think they seized on wokeness as a way to compensate for their failed lives and ambitions while being up to their ears in debt. I wish they could just bring back the Bryn-Mawr accent. Hence this bizarre need to constantly invent stupid rules and enforce them to prove your good breeding and to signal you belong to the right clique. Also magical thinking that if you call a pumpkin a “carriage” it becomes a carriage like in Snow White. Obviously, Boomers have some culpability as they are always trying to act “cool” and ape all this crap from youngsters because it makes them feel hip. Unfortunately, its all really pathetic and its unlikely to age well. Adults should start acting like adults and not 8th graders.

    1. Jerry complained that

      [McWhorter] doesn’t clearly explain, at least to me, how woke changed its connotation from good to bad.

      I haven’t read the piece (not a subscriber), but I think your [KD’s] explanation is so obvious that McWhorter probably doesn’t feel a need to provide it. Or maybe it is just implicit in what he does say.

  15. When I first started hearing the term “woke” being used regularly, I always associated it with college freshmen. Many of them, upon discovering politics, really seem to think that their insights on the subject are unique, that their jaded elders did not go through the same phase at some point, and they always seem to take an almost evangelistic tone.
    A friend of mine once lamented that he would never be as smart as he thought he was at 20.

    It used to be that at family gatherings, the newly woke kids would fervently preach to their elders about whatever they had just learned about, and the older folks would mostly humor them. Because we all went through a similar phase.
    These days, it seems like instead of humoring them, people are acting as if they are amazed at the wisdom and unique insight that the kids are showing, and encouraging them to remake society with their sophomoric ideas.

    Anyway, that is what woke always has meant to me.

    1. One example is from Barry Beckham’s 1972 play Garvey Lives! about the Jamaican political activist and black nationalist Marcus Garvey:

      I been sleeping all my life. And now that Mr. Garvey done woke me up, I’m gon stay woke. And I’m gon help him wake up other black folk.

      1. How appropriate is it that the term comes from being a credulous victim of convicted fraudster Marcus Garvey, who’s “solution” to the problem of race in America was to repatriate the Blacks to Africa and who was buddy buddy with the KKK, opposed Du Bos and the NAACP for promoting “racial miscegenation” when he wasn’t too busy separating fools from their money.

  16. You write: “But “woke” is not like “Negro” or “crippled”. It’s a positive term that took on a negative meaning, and not as a euphemism”, but the euphemism treadmill comes into effect as soon as “woke” takes on the semantic meaning of “politically correct: and thus inherits the negative connotation that came to be associated with pc…

    This is a podcast where McWhorter goes into much deeper detail of the nuances of the euphemism treadmill

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