Word woke widely circulated in the media and recently found itself in the mouth of the Prime Minister Francois Legault, who used it to decry one of his opponents. Many people wonder about the meaning of this borrowing from English, which politicians themselves are probably struggling to define. As a linguist, I will therefore be allowed to provide some answers here.
First, what do the reference sources say? Very little. Even the excellent Quebec dictionary Used remain silent. At most, the Office québécois de la langue française (OQLF) defines the “Woke movement” as a “movement that advocates increased awareness of social justice as well as an active commitment in the fight against discrimination and inequalities” . Anyone who knows the history of our neighbors to the south knows that it talks about the original Woke movement, which emerged from the civil rights struggles in the United States. Without being wrong, the terminological definition of the OQLF does not reflect the related, but distinct, meaning of the word woke in the general usage of francophones in Quebec.
In fact, the observation of Quebec French shows that it is usually referred to as woke a person whose activism is part of a radical left ideology, which is structured according to identity questions (linked to race, but also to gender, sexual orientation, etc.). Mutatis mutandis, we use the word woke as an adjective and we will therefore speak of ideology woke (sometimes referred to as “wokism”). Thus employed, which is woke opposes by definition what is claimed of the universal and political moderation. Indeed, the radical character of the ideology at play and its particular attachment to identity questions places it in conceptual and semantic opposition both with the progressive universalism inherited from the Enlightenment and with its more conservative counterparts.
Because of the oppositions it underlies, the word woke has come to be commonly the bearer of a pejorative charge. It is used by name to portray as indoctrinated and foreign to healthy democratic dialogue the people who are affixed. As such, the word can be qualified as an exonym: it is not commonly used, at least until now, by those concerned to designate themselves. Therefore, people say woke will not use this epithet more often than the separatists claim to be separatists or the Innu claim to be Montagnais.
In short, it is important to remember that the word woke has undergone a semantic evolution. In its original English sense, it was used in connection with postures generally considered to be positive (such as lucid opposition to racism), but it subsequently came to be associated with behaviors deemed to be deleterious (such as radicalisation, which leads to identity tension and enlightened irrationalism). These positive and negative associations are imprinted in the sense of the word woke, with a dominance of the pejorative charge in French.
Obviously, the use of a generally pejorative term like woke could hardly be associated with an act of good faith which favors a real dialogue between speakers. While it is easy for a linguist to pinpoint the meaning (or all) of a word as well as its probable effects, it is more difficult for him to know whether this word captures or distorts reality. The figure of woke is she a chimera, in other words a straw man built on amalgam, or does she represent an observable reality? The question is thrown at political scientists and sociologists.