On the origins of ‘woke’

New words that aren’t so new

The journalist Matthew Syed recently presented a five-part BBC series on the history of the term ‘woke’. African-American in origin, the word has entered the mainstream to describe being politically alert and vigilant, especially to racial prejudice and increasingly to all forms of social injustice. Most of us would guess that this was a word of recent coinage, but Matthew showed that it first occurred in the lyrics of a 1938 song by the blues singer Lead Belly (real name Huddie Ledbetter). His song about the Scottsboro Boys, nine black teenagers wrongly accused of rape and sentenced to death, warns of the dangers of a racially prejudiced justice system and concludes ‘best stay woke’.

Well before Lead Belly, young supporters of Abraham Lincoln in the 1860 presidential election formed a popular national movement called the Wide Awakes, campaigning for workers’ rights and the abolition of slavery. The movement’s half-a-million members were renowned for turning political rallies into festive occasions, parading at night by torchlight in colourful costumes, with music and fireworks. In a Bible-soaked age, few would have failed to recognise the allusion to the moral and spiritual wakefulness that is encapsulated in the parable of the wise virgins (Matthew 25:1-4).

RIGHT The term ‘woke’ was coined by the blues singer Lead Belly in the lyrics of a 1938 song about the Scottsboro Boys.
The term ‘woke’ was coined by the blues singer Lead Belly in the lyrics of a 1938 song about the Scottsboro Boys.

‘Woke’ leapt into mainstream use following the death of Michael Brown in 2014 and the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement. The word is short and the ‘k’ stop consonant has a strong plosive effect. It lends itself to tweets and newspaper headlines. It is disruptive in breaking the expected rules of grammar. It has all the right qualities for universal usage.

Amazing, iconic, unique, and existential

Matthew Syed’s broadcast encouraged Sherds to wonder just how old some of the other ‘contemporary’ usages might actually be. For example, Sherds recently had cause to read 100 years’ worth of a society’s magazine; this revealed that our predecessors were describing people and events as ‘amazing’ in the 1930s – though the adjective was then used relatively sparingly, and not in every other sentence as seems to be the case now. And the words ‘stereotype’ and ‘cliché’ both date from the mid-19th century, when they originally referred to printing processes (‘cliché’ being the onomatopoeic French word to describe the repeated clicking sound of a printing press at work).

We might consider the minting of new verbs from nouns to be a modern American habit, but many of the thousands of words coined during the 16th and 17th centuries by dramatists and Bible translators were created in this way. We are still doing it: we have become stronger advocates (noun) for the value of the heritage in recent years, but now you will more often read that somebody ‘advocates for’ (verb) the heritage. Adjectives can also morph into nouns: what used to be called ‘myriad problems’ (adjectival) will now be called ‘a myriad of problems’ (noun).

Some contemporary usages fly in the face of etymology: to describe something as ‘one of the most unique’ is simply paradoxical – it can’t be unique if there is more than one. Then there are words that have been given entirely new meanings (often less resonant than the original): ‘iconic’ now simply means ‘special’ or ‘outstanding’ rather than referring to a religious image intended to encourage prayer and contemplation. ‘Existential’ questions used to be concerned with the purpose and meaning of life, and the extent to which individuals are free to make personal choices instead of being bound by convention and contingency. Now an existential issue is the one that Hamlet soliloquised – whether ‘to be or not to be’ – something that threatens the very existence of a person or institution.

Hidden history

The heritage sector has its own overused terms. Sherds would like to see a ban on the use of the phrase ‘hidden history’, which really means ‘history that is currently fashionable or newsworthy’. ‘Hidden’ implies a conscious act of suppression, and is often used in connection with minority histories (the achievements of women, for example) or the history of slavery and empire. Sherds cannot speak for the younger generation, but the iniquitous history of slavery was certainly not hidden to the generation that took O- and A-levels; neither were the equally egregious histories of the industrial and agrarian revolutions. We studied them all, and had the grim facts brought home to us via nightmarish illustrations of shackled slaves packed into the holds of transatlantic ships or of children pulling coal trucks in tunnels just big enough for them to crawl through on hands and knees.

Perhaps ‘hidden’ means ‘not generally known’, but then there is an awful lot that is not general knowledge. Should we call quantum physics ‘hidden’ just because very few people could even define the term? Is Orion hidden just because a University Challenge team was recently unable to recognise and name the star formation?

Even the revered British Museum has used the ‘h’ word for its forthcoming exhibition about Qing-dynasty China (1796-1912), calling this ‘China’s hidden century’. Such an idea is hard to sustain when the curators themselves admit that they were faced with an embarrassment of riches when it came to selecting material for the displays: ‘museums, libraries, and collectors showed us a vast range of 19th-century materials’, they say on the BM’s website. They do not include any Chinese museums in the list of those that have supplied objects for the show, but if you have ever visited China you will know that Qing-dynasty artefacts are far from hidden – they constitute the majority of the exhibits in China’s museums and in the Forbidden City itself. Could the museum not have thought of a better title? Perhaps, ‘Rethinking all things Qing’?

Diplomacy with added spice

above Saffron strands, which still retained their scent and colour, were recently found along with other spices on board the wreck of the Danish royal flagship, the Gribshunden.
Saffron strands, which still retained their scent and colour, were recently found along with other spices on board the wreck of the Danish royal flagship, the Gribshunden. IMAGE: M Larsson and B Foley (2023) PLoS ONE 18(1): e0281010

Spices have been in the news recently. No, not the story about the spice rack in your kitchen probably harbouring more germs than chopping boards, tap handles, and dishcloths; rather, the discovery of a cargo of ginger, saffron, and cloves stored in the stern of the Danish royal flagship, the Gribshunden (literally ‘griffin dog’), which was built in 1485 and sank after a fire just ten years later. The spices on board provide the first archaeological evidence for cloves and ginger in medieval northern Europe, and the saffron strands are described as having retained their scent and colour.

Though the ship was discovered 50 years ago, the spices were only found in 2021. In publishing an account of the foodstuffs on board in the journal PLOS One, Mikael Larsson and Brendan Foley of Lund University listed dill, mustard seed, caraway, grapes, almonds, hazelnuts, and cucumbers. They believe that the more exotic spices imported from southern and eastern Asia were intended as diplomatic gifts from King Hans of Denmark and Norway to members of the Swedish nobility and clergy, who were meeting in council in Kalmar. They were to be used for a banquet in an effort to persuade them to elect Hans as their king, thus restoring the triple crown created by the Kalmar Union of 1397, from which Sweden had broken away.

When Henry VIII laid on a banquet at Greenwich to mark the conclusion of a treaty with France in 1527, the dishes were flavoured with cloves, ginger, almonds, mace, and cinnamon. The value of such commodities was enormous. In 1592, the Madre de Deus limped into port in London having been ‘captured’ from the Portuguese by English adventurers off the Azores. Her cargo of spices, coconuts, ivory, opium, silks, dyes, and carpets was said to have been worth more than the entire annual revenue of the Exchequer.

Similar exotics have been recovered from the Mary Rose, Henry VIII’s flagship, which sank in the Solent in 1545. Enterprising as ever, the Mary Rose Trust celebrated the 40th anniversary of the raising of the ship on 11 October 1982 by launching ‘Tudor Gin’. According to the website, this was ‘carefully crafted to include botanicals and flavour pallets [sic] symbolic of the 16th century’. These include dandelion (apparently used as an anti-inflammatory), hazelnut, hemp seed, and cherry, all found on the ship. Sounds like a rum old mixture, but Sherds never says no to a drop of mother’s ruin.