‘Woke,’ but little ‘progress’ in 2019 top words

PHOTO: Max Raymond, Flickr CC
Aaron J. Brown

Aaron J. Brown is an Iron Range blogger, author, radio producer and columnist for the Hibbing Daily Tribune.

A new word can be as rare and exciting as a new continent. And like a continent words change shape with time and pressure. Language does not merely represent reality; it creates reality.

Each year the Global Language Monitor tracks words found online. They catch new words, usage trends, and the ways in which our language intersects with cultural change.

As 2019 draws to a close the Global Language Monitor identified its top word of the year so far. That word is “woke.”

“In Progressive lingo, ‘woke’ describes an epiphany-like experience, where one is awakened to the call of social justice — and the failures of the past,” said Paul JJ Payack, president and chief word analyst of the Global Language Monitor. “Every generation in the post-Modern era has had similar experiences be they Civil Rights, the Vietnam War, the Women’s Movement, LGBT rights, etc. A key distinction here is that the sins of the past are now viewed in the context of the present as subjects to be rectified.”

“Woke” is the experience of realizing that past social norms were actually hurtful to some, and that we can do better. If you already know what “woke” means you might be woke, but it’s no guarantee. Really, it comes down to empathy for others. If you brag about it you’re probably doing it wrong.

Most of us have realized some kind of awakening in our lives. Maybe it was the realization that a certain word or phrase had racist origins. Perhaps it was a phrase that means something different to others than it does to you. Or maybe just the realization of historical truth. I didn’t know about Japanese internment camps or the depth of persecution against Native Americans until I did. Now I know more. And that matters.

Other top words of 2019 include:

2) Consequential. This refers to the impact of a presidential administration. Ideally, you want to be consequential in a good way.

3) Migrants. On one hand, human beings have always migrated. It’s in our nature and the reason for our modern culture. Today, however, the word refers to the growing number of people fleeing economic and political threats.

4) Opioids. Yeah, keeping up the good news with the highly addictive drugs ravaging communities across America.

5) Collusion. It wasn’t really what was at the heart of the Mueller Report but we all have opinions about it anyhow.

I’ve been writing about the Global Language Monitor’s list of top words for several years. And it’s certainly true that these columns used to be funnier. It seems each year the list spills over with dire trends in language.

Perhaps that’s because of a trend that GLM identified this year, this one related to a word being used considerably less today than it was in 1960. That word is “progress.”

This one struck me, perhaps for a specific reason. For the past two years I’ve been researching the early history of Hibbing, Minnesota. From the incorporation of the Village of Hibbing to its rapid growth and its tumultuous move to a new location, “progress” became the watchword of the times. It also guided the era that followed World War II as the nation’s largest generation ever was born into an optimistic world.

Generally speaking, prosperity and even semblances of progress have continued ever since. But we also slowly realized that not all share in that progress. We learned that the next frontiers will not be so easy to take or tame. We built machines that prove our individual weaknesses and vulnerabilities.

In this we may see progress but we no longer feel that it serves us. We no longer believe in it as we once did. So the word falls out of use.

Language is reality.

Aaron J. Brown is an author and college instructor from northern Minnesota’s Iron Range. He writes the blog MinnesotaBrown.com and is the creator of the Great Northern Radio Show which aired for eight years on Northern Community Radio. This piece first appeared in the Sunday, Dec. 15, 2019 edition of the Hibbing Daily Tribune.


  1. Dean Amundson says

    You forgot the new use of “they and them,” in it use as a personal pronoun replacing he, she, and it. Him and her, and so on.
    Merriam-Webster dictionary announced the personal pronoun. ‘they’ as 2019’s word of the year.

    BTW… I spent my summers 1960’s – 70’s on King Lake, Balsam Township, and grade school in Keewatin, MN. I follow your column from Minneapolis, MN now. Thanks for your news of the Range.
    Dean Amundson

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