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Stay ‘Woke’: Oxford Dictionary Adds the Term to Its Catalog

In July 2016, Deray McKesson was arrested, wearing a shirt that read ‘Stay Woke’, during a Baton Rouge protest for Black Lives Matter. (Photo: Max Becherer)

The Oxford English Dictionary has expanded its definition of “woke.” The previous edition, which defined the word simply as “past tense of wake,” has been updated as OED has expanded the definition to also include “alert to injustice in society, especially racism.

The phrase “stay woke” gained popularity in 2008 after Erykah Badu used the phrase in her song “Master Teacher” but has become more associated with the Black Lives Matter movement in recent years.

“This well-established but newly prominent usage of ‘woke’ has become emblematic of the ways in which Black American culture and language are adopted by non-Black people who don’t always appreciate their full historical and cultural context.” Oxford stated.

Even before 2008, Oxford Dictionary traced the word back to a 1962 New York Times article written by William Melvin Kelley, a prominent Black novelist and short-story writer. The article, titled “If You’re Woke, You Dig It,” discussed the “shifting street slang used in urban African-American communities.”

Because of the word’s origin as a slang term, Oxford has very little evidence of the word being written before the 2000s. The only other example appears in the 1972 play “Garvey Lives” by Barry Beckham.

“Because of the term’s prominence in today’s popular culture, as well as the role it seems to have played in the 1960s and ’70s, the OED Appeals Program [isn’t] currently seeing any contextual evidence of ‘woke’ meaning ‘well informed’ or ‘alert to racial or social discrimination and injustice’ that dates from earlier than 2008,” Oxford said.

The word has since been added to the Oxford website and will be listed in the upcoming print addition.

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