I need a new word for “woke”

November 28, 2021 • 11:00 am

I got an email the other day from a reader who objected to my repeated use of the word “woke” to refer to performative social justice warriors who don’t effect change.  He claimed that the usage was turning people off who might otherwise be on my side. When I asked for evidence, he said that when Richard Dawkins praised this site on Twitter, a lot of the Twitter comments, said the reader, mentioned unfavorably my use of the term “woke”.  I haven’t checked as i don’t do Twitter fights.

I know of course that “woke” originally had a more positive meaning, and was black argot for “alert to social injustice” (by that I mean true social injustice). Now, however, it’s used in a pejorative manner, as I indicated.  In that sense it’s similar to “p.c.” or “politically correct” which started out positive and then became satirical. In fact, it almost has the same meaning as “woke.”

But I’m still uncomfortable using a pejorative term to describe a movement I dislike intensely, though I’m not quite sure why. Perhaps it detracts from my credibility or my arguments, but I suspect that those who are turned off by it are looking for an excuse to dismiss what I say. I haven’t yet processed why I’m contemplating this change.

The alternative term that the person suggested was a jawbreaker of many syllables, and was so arcane nobody would know its meaning. (I forgot it.) So I’m canvassing readers to see if:

a. I should still keep using the term “woke”

and

b. If not, what word would you suggest.

Please comment below.

106 thoughts on “I need a new word for “woke”

  1. Continue to use the word “woke”. A better substitute word has not yet emerged to be widely recognized as describing what “woke” describes.

    1. Agreed. Only the woke don’t like being called ‘woke’. And it’s the same old motte and bailey as with so many other extreme positions held but never themselves defended. Call someone ‘woke’ and they’ll run back to the motte and pour hot buckets of “don’t you believe in justice and equality” on your head.
      I can suggest other words for such people, but our host here would blush rather than use them.

  2. You should keep using the word “woke”.

    The problem is that, if some other word — even an entirely neutral one — came to be used instead, then a few months later that word would have come to be regarded as a pejorative. Indeed that’s exactly what happened with “woke”.

    1. Maybe there should be an informal rule. Whose rule? Beats me. Anyway, here goes: when replacing an accurate term with one more diplomatic, the new replacement should be no more than two or perhaps three times the length of the original term. The longer the proposed replacement, the sillier a change usually seems to be.

  3. Woke refers to performative social justice warriors. Christian refers to people who believe in supernatural salvation. Many of each are proud to wear the label even though others use it to designate ignorance or foolishness.

    Keep using woke.

    1. “Christian refers to people who believe in supernatural salvation.”

      is off topic, and so am I, perhaps fussily, with the question:

      Does ‘Muslim’ not also refer to a person who believes in supernatural salvation?

      I am assuming here that you used “refers to” with the meaning ‘has the definition of’.
      I think your initial sentence makes that clear.

      Whereas I would be more comfortable with
      ‘Christian refers, as well as to others, to people who believe in supernatural salvation.’
      But not the analogy with the ‘woke’ sentence.

      And fussily is how Jerry’s objector-to-his-use seems to be behaving. I don’t think Jerry is misleading at all with the word. I do think most people who misunderstand are just plain stupid, as are most such performative social justice warriors. Any not stupid are probably trying to make some money out of that ridiculous behaviour.

      1. I find the phrase prayer warriors highly amusing and could apply to any religion. Their major notable contribution achievement is to achieve total zip.

  4. As long as the woke continue to use the term to refer to themselves it seems logical to use the word. Somehow “Popularized Critical Theory” doesn’t seem as useful.

  5. Keep using “woke”. The objection to the term comes from not wanting to be held accountable for ridiculous opinions. It is a Marxist reflex to take away the word to obfuscate the movement.

  6. If their main criticism is about your choice of words, I don’t think that’s substantive enough to warrant a change. I think if you used a different word they would seize upon some other superficial perceived flaw.

    That said, Helen Pluckrose for example tends to use CSJ (critical social justice) as an umbrella term for woke ideologies, so that may be an alternative.

    1. “Helen Pluckrose…”, thus prolonging the misuse of the word ‘critical’, both in remote conman-infested Arts Faculty university departments, or among the little people.

  7. Continue to use it. I can’t remember whether you have commented on its original meaning and its evolution but if you haven’t perhaps you might.

  8. Wokeness recalls talking nicely but not walking the talk, showing a different way but not putting money where the mouth is. Isn’t that hypocrisy? Would hypocrite work for woke?

  9. Do not stop using it. The only reason that there has suddenly been some opposition to it is because its inherent destructiveness is finally being exposed on a wide scale.

    1. The word “equitarian ” which you mentioned the article in your first link seems a very good candidate to replace “woke”, as it is descriptive of the seemingly-desired outcome of the woke. (It also could be used as a malapropism for being on a high horse.)

      1. “Equitarian” for those who don’t think MLK’s dream is sufficient. The “the woke” would be “performative equitarians” or “virtual signaling equitarians”

        Woke is still the best word for this context.

  10. The Daily Sceptic has a discussion about this issue and concludes “Woke” will have to stay a little while longer: https://dailysceptic.org/2021/11/11/whats-wrong-with-woke/

    Like the Sceptic’s author, I’m not sure if there’s a suitably brief alternative that captures the essence of “woke” – or that the “woke” themselves wouldn’t object to it being used to label them even if we could agree on one. After all, they only have themselves to blame for the fact that their self-descriptions such as “woke” and “political correctness” now have negative connotations that they dislike.

    So using something like “performative activist(s)/activism” might sum up their efforts, but won’t please them any more than “woke” currently does and in addition would sacrifice the recognition that the original term has already built up.

  11. This is only an observation, I am not from the teaching world and have nothing to do with campus world or education. After the so-called republicans take over the term may apply to all of us. The republicans love to call us names.

  12. I understand your desire to avoid a known pejorative. Doing so means that some of your audience will immediately want to find out which side of a known divide you are on rather than listen to your actual argument. You don’t want to label yourself as “Democrat” or “Republican” if you’re trying to make a fine point on political partisanship in the US.

    As for “woke” specifically, I would stick with it a while longer. The people that are pushing the awful woke agenda are busy trying to dodge criticism by deliberately muddying the word’s definition. They are doing the same with CRT, claiming it is from law school or is only about teaching the history of racism. We can’t let them off the hook just when headway is being made against their bad ideas.

    1. “Woke” as a pejorative term for this toxic performative ideology is perfectly apt and I don’t see it likely to turn off possible allies. I caution about where you use it. Younger people committed to what we call wokeness or even more benign forms of justice will immediately tag you as out of date and behind the times because none of them use the term any more. Calling out something for being “woke” is likely to get, “OK, Boomer” with an eye-roll thrown in. Just another old man shaking his fist and shouting at the clouds who can be told to check his white privilege and sit down. (They did this to “political correctness”, too. Shibboleths and passwords are changed frequently to foil false signalling.)

      But as tribal colours for us, it’s fine.

      1. Yes, AOC tried that trick recently, basically saying that the cool kids no longer use the term. I look at that as just her trying to avoid a label she doesn’t like. Too bad, I say. “Ok, boomer” doesn’t really work in politics as us boomers vote. “Ok, wokie.”

  13. If the woke wish to refer to themselves with a new term, then that term should be considered. Meanwhile I would favor still using it even though that is the less interesting choice. I don’t see the term as entirely pejorative.

    I don’t see this variety of person to be entirely performative and useless — or a source of harm and aggravations. Although they do plenty of those things! They have meanwhile carried the ball of social justice forward in good ways, in my opinion.

    1. While I like McWhorter’s writings, this word doesn’t work for me. I understand how it goes along with his thesis that Wokeism is a religion. Even if it is, so what? It is descriptive, something we should expect from a linguist, but likening it to a religion doesn’t at all help us in our fight against it.

  14. Woke works but perhaps there need to be subcategories. In the military a Garret Trooper is a service member who is viewed as never actually getting dirty, seeing combat, doing anything useful etc. It is pejorative and typified by those who spend careers safe and secure away from the fighting but still collecting medals and always looking good rather than doing good. They are portrayed as
    looking down on other Soldiers. Perhaps Garret Woke or using some other adjective such as Performative Woke??

  15. I know of course that “woke” originally had a more positive meaning, and was black argot for “alert to social injustice” (by that I mean true social injustice).

    I suggest honoring that past by using “performative wokeness” to refer to the twisted modern twist on the concept. It’s just one more word, and clarifies a lot.

      1. I think in the original sense you could be aware of injustices without signaling to one and all your credentials. There is a need for a word to describe people who care and take action toward a better future but are not doing so in their own self interest. Unfortunately, no variation of woke would be acceptable because that word is to tainted.

  16. One of the most important attributes of “woke” right from the start is that it captured virtue signaling perfectly right from its inception. The portrayal of people that don’t think about social justice and racism in exactly the approved manner as asleep is perfectly deprecating. That attitude is at the core of why we need to fight wokeism. The Woke are stuck with their awful term and we should hit them over the head with it.

  17. Continue to use ‘woke.’

    This is now a brand. In fact, a very strongly identified and tied brand. Marketers are probably in awe and envy for the widespread familiarity with Woke.

    Part of the history — and a rapid history it is — is the astounding theft of the term from the CSJ. BLM/Antifa etc. purloined it from what appears to have been a “good” nickname for true social justice [I don’t agree the original argot usage was positive]. They deployed the ‘good’ penumbra of the argot as a mask for their toxic agenda to disrupt and overthrow Western Civilization.

    What a shock! That game is up, that agenda has been exposed, and the term “Woke” has in turn been ripped away from CSJ by a wide coalition of parents, intellectuals, and pundits. It now inculcates alliance to smash all Blue projects that once flew the woke flag.

    I am not surprised to hear of suggestions from the Left to stop using the word. It has become a lethal sword against them.

    1. I’m on “the Left” and I use the word all the time in the pejorative. It is not the lethal sword you think. It applies to a loud minority but hardly all of us.

  18. Another vote for “woke”, the negative connotations of which were richly earned. However I object to “cromulent”, Dr. Brydon. The word is not merely recondite, but acroamatical.

  19. I think any term used to denote the people currently referred to as “woke” is bound to acquire pejorative connotations. It’s what they say and do that is problematic and whatever label you give them will be tainted because of their actions.

  20. You could use ‘extreme political correctness’ instead, but the same people would only complain about that instead.

    This piece points out the problems of arguing about this terminology better than I could, so I will just link it.

    https://freddiedeboer.substack.com/p/please-just-fucking-tell-me-what

    And I will only underline the end comment, that the constant arguing about what this should be called performs the function of a smokescreen to avoid accountability or discussion of what they want to achieve. Is that intentional? I think it’s less of a bug than it is a feature, let’s put it that way.

  21. Keep using it. I like Paul Torek’s “performative wokeness” and suggest “pragmatic wokeness” as its opposite.

  22. I’m another vote for ‘performative wokeness’. It encapsulates the toothless, attention seeking virtue signaling aspect of those making a scene to make a scene, rather than create actual change.

  23. Woke was their original self-label. The people who advocate on that side can invent a new label and then we will have an alternative label. it is not our responsibility to invent a label for them. Protesting the use of their own original label without first agreeing on an alternative label is an eat the cake and still have the cake request, they are not entitled to have this both ways.

  24. To me, the issue is co-opting and changing the meaning of a word that was developed and had meaning within a specific group of people, especially when that group has suffered oppression by the majority. Even though you did not start the co-optation, anyone who uses “woke” now tacitly agrees with it. To me, it’s a sign of respect for the people who develop a word and the idea behind it to not use it pejoratively, even if you strongly disagree with the original concept.

    1. Sue, do you seriously think that those keyboard soldiers and Twitter heroes actually suffered oppression? Seriously?

      1. Hmm. Maybe “oppression” was too strong a word for this platform, but growing up in the U.S. is pretty different for black and white people.

  25. Years ago, a commercial on New Zealand TV talked about using the term ‘politically correct’ as intellectually lazy because, as the commercial stated, if you can’t state an issue in its’ own terms without resorting to a qualifier, then the issue isn’t worth talking about. I’m fine with the term ‘woke’, but I’d encourage everyone to lose the word when making an argument for or against it.

  26. I recommend using the terms “toxic wokeness” and “toxically woke” to refer specifically to the more harmful and performative behaviors/ideologies, as opposed to the relatively mild forms of wokeness that may be genuinely concerned with correcting legitimate injustices and making the world better.

  27. “Critical Social Justice” is good for engaging with the ideas without seeming dismissive. For performative antics like groupthink, demonization, and language policing, “woke” hits the spot.

  28. Please continue to use “woke”–precisely because it is pejorative. Also, it’s shorter than “assholes”.

    I do admit to liking “performative virtue signaller” in #5 above.

  29. I would be happy if you continue to use “woke”, because everyone knows what you mean, and I actually think that the opposition to the use of the word is just another example of the endless bullying by the people in question. Otherwise, I like “Ctrl – Left”, but I suspect they’ll be against it as well :-). They should at least be so kind to say what we are allowed to call them.

    My country is currently in disarray largely as a result of long and massive protests by people disliking the previous government. A common designation of our protestors is “the smartbeautiful”, because they claim to be the best part of the population.

  30. Use whatever language you feel brings across what you are trying to convey best. I’m sure George Orwell would approve of this method.

  31. I agree with John McWhorter that “wokeism” is a religion. With that in mind you might try calling these folks “Members of the Church for the Perpetually Offended”. Eh, on second thought, stick with “woke”, a lot shorter and easier to remember.

  32. The bounded woke (BW), meaning those who can’t see over the event horizon. Those frustratingly lacking clear critical thinking. All others are miss-woke as in misguided and funny enough denotes the capture of the word from its original purpose. There seems to be a category that fall under this umbrella if Pinecourt and Lindsay (Wokecraft) are correct.

  33. I like the “keep using it” angle.

    However, and this is not the exact word function, but … has someone said this yet?…

    The Elect

  34. I was trying to think of a better word for “woke” but couldn’t because labels in general are fraught with inaccuracy. How about avoiding the label altogether and using a few more words to describe the specific person/situation?

  35. That’s the “naming problem” which has been a constant issue for a decade already. You posted DeBoer’s exasperated comment on this recently, where he faces the same issue. We’ve been there many times. Social justice warriors, atheism plus, regressive left, ctrl left, the elect, successor ideology, and woke are just some of the terms we cycled through.

    It cannot be solved. Once you found a new name, you have to explain what it means. This will be met with denial. It’s nothing. It doesn’t exist. Nobody wants anything you say. Your examples do not reflect an actual, widespead situation. And so on.

    If your name is in use, it will be more often used by critics than by advocates of this ideology. Advocates don’t need to name themselves as the hegemonial users of social media. Once the term is associated as a term used by critics, it can be roundly dismissed as well by the hegemon, since the critics are just white old istophobes defending patriarchy, white supremacy or the next buzzword in five years.

    I’ve struggled with this issue for years, because it’s a problem when you are on the Left yourself. You want to distinguish them from your views. Interestingly, postmodern “theory” had identical features: it was not well-regarded by actual leftists (such as socialists, Marxists etcetera), but postmodernists themselves were excessively flaunting how left they were. They also broadly declared anyone “right wing” who was in any way critical of any detail of their ideology. When Sokal punked them with his hoax, they declared he was having right wing values like Rush Limbaugh. And key, they also always denied being postmodernists.

    If you want a decent term, you might want to try “intersectionality” or “intersectionalist”. But I can guarantee that weasel games will follow, too, as they will accuse you that you use the term to discuss elements that are not narrowly about intersectionality. This is the same pretend-obtuseness that surrounded “atheism plus” which was narrowly only a tiny forum, but stood in a broader sense for the entire faction. Recall that they also staunchly denied they were their own thing, and yet also wrote every second time how they are different from the new atheists.

    I don‘t know what Hemant Mehta wants. Didn’t he denounce Richard Dawkins and led the AHA to withdraw their humanist award?

    PS: comments went missing, or were deleted, maybe a wordpress issue, or moderation. Alas, it’s not apparent.

  36. Continue using “woke”. Early on, Jerry used “intersecionality” to mean basically the same thing, at least as far back as 2017. (I think I did, too, but can’t find any usages by me in a quick search of WEIT.) The only alternative gaining much use– “critical race theory”– is not really accurate: CRT refers to an actual theory promoted by certain law professors, so to use CRT is both wrong, and allows any complaints about wokeness couched in CRT terms to be dismissed as uninformed.

    As Brian Leiter has observed, for most critics who use CRT,

    the real targets are the half-baked “ideas” of Robin DiAngelo and Ibram Kendi that have been put into practice in many workplaces (and some schools): e.g., treating race as the marker of moral and epistemic status, treating disparate impact as evidence of “racism,” overgeneralizing about the supposed attributes of “whiteness” (e.g., “objectivity” is white), interpreting effects of the capitalist marketplace as “racial” effects, and so on. The DiAngelo-Kendi schtick makes the other white victims of the capitalist marketplace into agents and instigators of morally reprehensible oppression.

    Leiter, a professor of law, goes on to explain what CRT really is.

    So “woke” it is, and with James Carville, Maureen Dowd, and John McWhorter all using it, the meaning will be clear.

    GCM

    1. I’d suggest that you additionally keep asking any objectors “what would you prefer we call you?” In case someone comes up with a better term – and in the meantime, to highlight how the “we have no name” tactic is intellectually problematic and somewhat dishonest.

  37. I stick with ‘PC’. ‘Woke’ is just trendy. I’m sure that the sentiment will have other names in the next few decades and I feel no need to keep up with the latest nomenclature.

  38. I think they just do not want anyone talking about them until they have acquired enough power that talking will not make a difference.
    Any word we use will be a pejorative, because they are repugnant. If we started calling them Great Humanitarian Geniuses, people would immediately start using air quotes when saying it, and everyone would see it as irony.

    One definition of woke that I have been thinking about is “People whose strength of opinion on a given subject has an inverse relationship to their level of knowledge. But that is too broad. It is simply an element of wokeness, along with an unhealthy desire to make rules for others, and a childish inability to think issues out fully. Also, the first rule of Dunning/Kruger club.

    1. Going from that :

      “Puritans” wasn’t pejorative. And The Elect are exponents (…?..) of something that is not unlike a religion – where, being convinced of the truth they know, do not see it as a religion – but we do.

      Perhaps “New Puritans” … something along those lines…

      1. I just learned that Andrew Doyle wrote a book due out on 22 June 2022 (yes, June 2022):

        The New Puritans
        How Identity Politics and Social Justice Became the Dominant Religion of Our Time
        Little, Brown Book Group

        … should be excellent!… but depressing. Partly because the name I suggested – “New Puritans” – was already thought of.

    1. Yeah, the Virtuous (capital V), I really like that, but it will also acquire a pejorative feel within a fortnight, if not immediately seen as sarcastic, I fear.
      It appears we are stuck with the beautiful and effective ‘Woke’. 😁

  39. I came by late in the day to thank those who taught me “cromulent”. Much appreciated.

    And to say that, considering how readily the woke impose language on others (cf. “Latinx”, “menustruators”, etc.), it’s hard to take seriously their objection to others using “woke” in the same way the woke themselves adopted it.

  40. As you say, “woke” originally referred to anti-injustice. It appears the word was borrowed to veil the flaws in what its modern borrowers actually stood for, corrupting it. By those who see that, I’d say the word isn’t used pejoratively so much as ironically. “You selected this word for what you’re doing; you asked for it to be used to describe you. So here we are, simply honouring your request.”

    The backlash seems to come from a) the original borrowers who realize the flaws in their thinking are now plainer and wish to distance themselves to further hide them, and b) people who missed this entire development and mistakenly think people using “woke” as criticism oppose anti-injustice.

    I think the second group will catch up in time. To help, I’ve sometimes pointed out (in “Twitter fights”) that woke has these two appreciable and distinct senses now. For a sprinkling of a hint at that, I might say “woke” (in air quotes, as in “so-called woke”), or “modern, corrupted woke,” or “wokism” to allude to the modern version’s religion-like traits.

    In short, I’d say continue to use it, and feel free to clarify constantly to give those who might “leave your side” a fair chance to parse you.

  41. Wokoharam ? 🙂 The Chaos Crowd? Authoritarian Self-Righteous Pseudo-Left (ASP)? The Twitter Mob? Marcuse’s Snob Mob (MSM) ? PC Puritans (PCP) ? Moral Panic Mongers? Moral Outrage Mob (MOM)? Maybe there isn’t a better term than Woke, although maybe Woke-Activist would be a way to distinguish the problematic Woke dogma enforcers from those who labour under the delusion that Woke-ism is simply about being nicer and less bigoted and who believe that all criticism of it comes from the Alt-Right and who still wear the Woke label with pride.

  42. The pejorative meaning of “woke” is something that got layered on over time. It’s like the word “tranny.” Initially it was just a short way of saying “transexual.” But honestly I know plenty of trans-persons who still use that word, and lots of gays who use the word “queer” to describe themselves. Everyone knows what it is. If you change it now you’ll have to edit all your old blog posts and who needs that. Keeping up with the proper “this year’s” nomenclature is an exercise in futility.

  43. Apologies for testing …
    || ||

    … I think the vertical bars are preventing a comment from getting through the computing process..

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  44. I’m baffled why this isn’t going through so I have to trim tiny bits :

    Ways Of Knowing Electism

    WOKE

    … yes?… YES!

    It worked.

    Something with periods and no spaces….

    Like this :

    W.O.K.E.

    Nope … well, I’m satisfied , I wrote what I wanted. Cheers.

  45. Irshad Manji, the famous gay married lesbian Muslim advocate for reform of her religion and of the cultures based on it, has suggested “Puritans of Diversity” in her excellent book “Don’t Label Me”. That might be the best alternative to Woke that I’ve run across so far.

  46. Wear the tag with pride. Yes there are those that just talk the talk but that’s no reflection on those that walk the walk. Consider another word that is a near synonym “Christian.” There are plenty who label themselves Christians but wouldn’t recognise the Sermon On The Mount if they fell over it in the dark. The fact that the word Christian has come to be a pejorative shouldn’t be a reflection on those who behave like New Testament Christians. They were the first of the Woke.

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