OPINION | BRENDA LOOPER: Definition cloudy

Brenda Looper
Brenda Looper

As much as I sometimes decry social media, I admit there are some accounts that are always worth a follow. For the Word Nerd, following the Merriam-Webster dictionary is just a given, but considering the humor of its social media team, anyone--logophile or not--is missing out if they don't at least check on its feed every once in a while.

You're also missing out if you don't read some of the replies to their posts (mostly Twitter and Facebook; they're on Threads, but haven't posted much there yet), where you can find people complaining that people shouldn't consider the dictionary to be a reliable source ... on words. I wrote a couple of months back that someone took issue, on a post about expletive infixation ("the linguistic term for profanity inserted into a word for emphasis"), with the definition of female, which had nothing to do with anything, other than deliberately misunderstanding the purpose of a dictionary to make a political point.

What got me thinking about this again (in the maybe five minutes a day I don't think about words) was a post by the dictionary on its Facebook page last week with two pictures: one saying "Choose your words carefully," and the second, "This came off way more ominous than we intended ... We meant it in a breezy/omg no worries if not kind of way."

Allow me to snicker at the "omg" in lowercase. It's like they've been reading my texts and emails since I tend to not use capital letters when talking to friends.

And we're back. The endless culture wars come to mind here because so much of what is said seems to follow a script, usually employing words in ways they weren't intended. You might say they're choosing words carefully to muddy the waters; if you make the definition so broad it can include anything (see Christopher Rufo and CRT), you always have culture-war fodder.

The Marsh Family, who went viral for several parody songs during the pandemic, touched on this in "The Woke Song," released last month, writing on Twitter/X: "People are struggling to define 'woke.' We take this matter very seriously and are therefore sharing this public service song, fronted by a puppet orangutan, involving cult-like children, and featuring amateurish experimental green screen."

On its Facebook page, the family wrote of their video/"handy explainer on this new word that seems to be consuming the public sphere": "We were angling for a kind of 'The Muppets Show' meets 'The Jungle Book' musical vibe. And obviously to introduce some stealth-anthropology and poke-and-laugh to a central plank of the culture wars in many countries."

You know me and the whole concept of point-and-laugh at the culture wars; I'm all for it (no, there's still no war on Christmas, Starbucks isn't being anti-Christian for using simple red cups in December instead of ones decorated with snowflakes and trees [which have nothing to do with Christianity], and asking people to follow the same rules everyone else has to isn't persecution). This "woke" kerfuffle both amuses and saddens me.

A lot of people would prefer that "woke" be only the past tense/past participle of wake, but in American slang it means "aware of and actively attentive to important societal facts and issues (especially issues of racial and social justice)," according to Merriam-Webster. That usage is derived from the meaning in African American Vernacular English in the 1940s as "alert to racial prejudice and discrimination," which expanded to social inequalities (sexism, etc.) in the 2010s. Sometime during that decade it became a right-wing rallying cry and an insult to anyone who expressed such views. (How dare they care about others!)

The Marsh Family song takes it on (sure, they may seem a little behind the times to us, but "woke" has only recently been introduced in the U.K., which is where they are) in a snappy little tune sure to become an earworm for some (me!): "Once upon a time, when you had something on your mind/And it was making you a little sad inside/You'd have to try your best to find/How to express that state of mind/By using words, explaining issues--had to consider either side.

"But now we've made a leap/That means you never have to pause/You can just plough right on/(Doesn't mean you're right, of course)/But it carries such a force/And you're freed of all remorse: You just call it woke!"

They caution, however, that "it's mirrors and it's smoke," summing up: "Doesn't show much erudition/But who needs a definition?!/You can't touch it, you can't be it/But you know it when you see it/Share the hoax, share the joke/Sing it: woke!"

Suddenly I'm reminded of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart and his 1964 remark about obscenity: "I know it when I see it."

"Woke" for one side of the political spectrum will remain what has been long accepted, but for the other side that's irritated by those they consider "woke," it's subject to change depending on what offends them on a specific day.

Way to move the goalposts, folks. Is it any wonder those of us in the middle are always rolling our eyes?

Assistant Editor Brenda Looper is editor of the Voices page. Email her at blooper@adgnewsroom.com. Read her blog at blooper0223.wordpress.com.

Upcoming Events