Word of the day: woke

Burger King have recently launched their first plant-based burger – the Rebel Whopper – a move that you might imagine would please many vegetarians and vegans. However, the new offering has caused controversy for two reasons. Firstly, there’s the fact that it’s actually cooked on the same grill as meat burgers, and then there’s the incredibly patronizing advertising campaign.

In the TV advert for the burger, which you can see here, a voice asks why the company have bothered to make something that tastes so similar to their meat burgers. A hand then turns round a paper cup that’s appeared in the background . . . . to reveal the word WOKE printed on it. I can’t think of any other company in recent times who seem to so clearly be poking fun at potential customers. It’s unprecedented!

The thing is, you see, ‘woke’ has become a word that’s used as a weapon in the culture wars we’re seeing erupt all over the world. Like many things, it emerged from black American culture, and over time developed a particular connection with the Black Liberation movement and with awareness of racism, sexism, classism and so on. The basic idea was that once you woke up to the reality of oppression – once you became properly aware of it – you then had to stay woke – you had to carry on being aware of it, so you could work out ways to resist it and fight back.

Once the late 60s / early 70s had passed, the word fell out of favour for quite some time, only really resurfacing a decade or so ago. In 2012, users on Twitter began using “woke” and “stay woke” in connection with social and racial justice issues and #StayWoke emerged as a widely-used hashtag. From social media and activist circles, the word spread to widespread mainstream usage. For example, in 2016, the headline of a Bloomberg Businessweek article asked “Is Wikipedia Woke?”, in reference to the largely white contributor base of the online encyclopedia.

However, since the election of Donald Trump in November 2016, there’s been a major backlash against left-wing politics and the straight, white, middle-class male has started using a whole wide range of words in a bid to protect his privilege and position. People who pointed out (and maybe sometimes got annoyed or offended by) how offensive certain racist or sexist ideas were suddely started getting labelled snowflakes, those who disagreed with right-wing nationalism were now called traitors and ‘woke’ was used to mock people who feel strongly about, say, the fact that black Britons are nine times more likely to be stopped and searched for drugs than white people, despite using illegal substances at a lower rate.

Over the last couple of years, we’ve seen endless headlines in right-wing newspapers using the word in a negative way. The Daily Mail in particular is engaged in an ongoing campaign to label anything political that it disgarees with as ‘woke’. There was the damning article about Starbucks ‘launching a ‘woke’ campaign to raise £100,000 for a controversial transgender charity’, which was followed by endless negative comments about Harry and Meghan, “the oppressive King and Queen of Woke” and a minor actor who had a recent fifteen minutes of fame after calling someone who pointed out he was a privileged white male ‘racist’ getting to write about why he ‘won’t date woke women’.

Let’s face it, the honest answer is that they wouldn’t be interested in him even if he wanted to date them . . . but I suspect he neglected to mention that.

In other words, like “politically correct” before it, the word “woke” has come to suggest the opposite of what it once meant, and today you’re more likely to see it being used as a stick with which to beat people who support social justice . . . often wielded by those who don’t recognise how un-woke they are, or are even proud of the fact.

Given all of this, you do have to wonder who on earth within Burger King decided the current advert was a good idea!

It’s a funny old world, eh.

Want to learn more with Lexical Lab? Take a summer course with us.

Work in pairs. Discuss these questions.

  • Have you seen similar kinds of culture wars erupt in your country over recent years?
  • Which words do you see used most (by either side) to insult or mock opponents?
  • Can you think of any adverts or products that have caused controversy recently?
  • Can you think of any words / trends that fell out of favour for quite some time and then suddenly resurfaced?
  • Were you aware of the campaign by the right-wing press in Britain to attack Harry and Meghan for being ‘woke’?
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