I’m woke to the gerundification of English

English is a wonderful language that never ceases to surprise with its ability to evolve with society, to change and twirl through usage. It happens right before our eyes, in an astonishingly short time. And I don’t just mean the way that the noun ‘invitation’ has been supplanted by its verb form (‘to invite’), creating a new noun, ‘invite’. You know – ‘I got an invite to the party’.

Technically, a verb-turned-noun is a gerund. And I have to wonder, is this how English is changing at the moment? Verbs becoming nouns? Invite is not the only example. The other one I can think of is the way ‘woke’ is being used as a present-tense noun modifier, which means it is also a gerund. (‘Stay woke, folks’). When I was growing up it was a past-tense verb referring to sleep or realisation (‘I woke up’).

As far as I can tell, both ‘woke’ and its associated call-to-action, ‘wake up’, take the ‘realisation’ meaing, and refer to ‘seeing the light’ in terms of a particular viewpoint or assertion. Most of the examples I’ve seen are also in a fairly emotive context. To this extent, as far as I can tell, to be ‘woke’ means to be emotionally aware of some issue, usually as perceived by the ‘woke’ person. That’s then fed back into the original meaning of sudden realisation; to call on others to ‘wake up’ is essentially a call to ‘see things as I do’, or ‘conform to how I see it.’

So in that sense, the meaning of ‘woke’ hasn’t really changed: what has shifted is the grammatical usage, which has switched from verb to noun (in this case, a noun that names a state of existence, being ‘woke’). According to Merriam-Webster, this was first particularly noticed around 2008 in African-American Vernacular English (AAVE), though I think it must have pre-dated that socially, and it’s gained traction since about 2017 in social media. It’s still evolving. Whether – like many usages – it’ll be transient, or become a lasting addition to the language, has yet to be seen. That’ll depend on how the usage develops.

That’s the thing with English. It’s a kind of emergent property of society; it has a life of its own. Usages change. Words, meanings – even entire dialects – can emerge over time, without anybody particularly intending it to happen. Much of that comes through embracing diversity in people, diversity in culture, and the resulting social interaction infuses the language with a dynamic character and richness that, to me, is truly wonderful.


Copyright © Matthew Wright 2019


5 thoughts on “I’m woke to the gerundification of English

  1. These novelties often arise in specific groups, usually young people, sometimes ethnic groups. If using the words is perceived as cool, they leak out of the originating group and become widely used, at which point they’re no longer cool.

    1. English is totally illogical – pretty much random – in so many ways. A legacy of its origins, I suspect; it was always as much as a social exercise as a language. To me that is what makes it so appealing, but of course the result is that an awful lot of English, as a constantly evolving human artifact, doesn’t actually make consistent sense.

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