I’m wide awake, but am I “woke?”
And if I am “woke,” is that good or bad?
Such are the dilemmas we face as social media and malicious politics spawn new ways for us to praise and insult one another – sometimes using the same new word for both purposes. Suddenly, we’re awash in coinages, some of which are already in the dictionary and others that are on the way: woke, snowflake, adulting, cancel culture, doomscrolling, ghosting, swerving, trolling – you name it.
As for “woke,” the quintessential two-way adjective, Merriam-Webster defines it as being sensitive to social issues, especially those relating to racial injustice. That’s good — unless you’re on the far right, where it’s now used as an insult implying super-sensitivity.
In contemporary parlance, “woke” has been “weaponized.” One website familiar with such terms puts it this way: “‘Woke’ has dethroned ‘politically correct’ and ‘snowflake’ as the insult du jour for many internet trolls wishing to mock the hypersensitivity of the left.”
Sounds like the language is moving so fast that hip new words are falling out of fashion faster than we can say them. Merriam-Webster laments on its website that originally, “snowflake” had “a hushed and lovely” literal meaning, but, “In recent times… the word has been causing a ruckus. It’s developed a new and decidedly less pleasant use as a disparaging term for a person who is seen as overly sensitive and fragile.”
As for ‘troll,’ this is no longer just a reference to grotesque creatures living under bridges, but more often, to grotesque creatures tapping at keyboards. The Urban Dictionary defines ‘troll’ as a person who deliberately makes controversial comments on internet sites to provoke emotional, knee-jerk reactions from readers. Or, in the words of another website definition, they’re “jerks who say nasty things to strangers online.”
“Cancel Culture” gets a lot of ink these days, defined by Merriam-Webster as “The mass withdrawal of support from public figures or celebrities who have done things that aren’t socially accepted today.”
Arguments proliferate over whether the cancellations are good faith protests against bigotry or moralistic stiflings of free expression.
As we search the internet, we’re reminded that there’s plenty of bad news out there – and for some, constantly checking for tragedy is more an addiction than a pastime. The latest description of these people is that they’re “doomscrollers.”
Lots of new words are said to have originated with millennials, including ‘ghosting.’ That’s when someone you’re close to ends the relationship by cutting off all communication, without explanation.
And then there’s “swerve,” meaning “get lost;” salty, meaning grumpy; and “adulting” – doing the mundane things that grownups do, like paying the mortgage, grocery shopping, and driving the kids to soccer practice.
Sounds pretty boring, so let’s end on a more provocative note by rolling out the newest take on “quiche.” If you’re considerably younger than I am, you know this describes a person who’s “really, really hot.”
All this proves that our language is fluid, expressive, and constantly changing. I approve of that. Often, though, I yearn for the time when you could sum a person up as either cool or square, and call it a day.
Gerry Goldstein (email@example.com) is a retired Providence Journal editor and columnist.