What does woke mean? Amanda Holden faces backlash for Paul O’Grady comments

Amanda Holden is facing a backlash for her comments on the passing of Paul O’Grady, after describing him as “not woke in any way.”

Speaking on Heart Radio, she said: “You know what I loved about him [Paul O’Grady], he was not woke in any way.

“He really had massive opinions on everything, which I love. Really funny, very witty, everything that came out of his mouth was brilliant.”

Fans were quick to criticise her comments, highlighting that O’Grady was a drag queen, LGBTQ+ rights activist and vocal critic of the Conservative Party’s austerity cuts.

The term woke has been used in mainstream politics and British culture since 2016 (although its origins date back further than that). This was when the Oxford English Dictionary considered making it Word of the Year.

But in recent years, the term has been misused and weaponised by mostly right-wing people to criticise left-wing views.

But where did the word woke come from and what does it actually mean?

What does woke mean?

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the term woke originally appeared as an “African-American variant of woken or awake”. Its origins can be traced back to 1962 in a glossary of “phrases and words you might hear today in Harlem”.

The glossary accompanied a New York Times article which defined the word woke as “well-informed, up to date.” Meanwhile, the OED defines woke as “well informed “or “alert to racial or social discrimination and injustice”.

As Phoebe Luckhurst wrote for the Evening Standard in 2017: “To be ‘woke’ is to be sensitive to social issues and how they shape the world we live in…It implies a distrust of elites, imparts exasperation with the status quo, and connotes action and change.”

The word entered the mainstream in 2016, when the UK voted for Brexit and the US elected Donald Trump as president.

But since then, woke has been transformed into a synonym for other buzzwords such as snowflake and social justice warrior. These are also often used to criticise or mock people aware of social issues or people who hold left-wing ideals.

In 2021, Natasha Mwansa wrote in the Evening Standard: “What it’s now become is a way to silence and shame people into staying quiet about issues that actively put people at harm when not addressed.”

Mwansa also argued that the word has since become “basically a way to describe a very whiny and over-sensitive young person”.

Nick Curtis, the Evening Standard’s Chief Theatre Critic, argued in 2022 that “‘woke’ is just the latest, pejoratively loaded term — following ‘politically correct’ and ‘right on’ — adopted by the regressive.”

He said: “Right to legitimise attacks on basic decency. Being woke means being kind, sensitive or respectful. It means treating people as they ask to be treated, not as you feel entitled to treat them.”

Considering the origin of the word, and more modern definitions, it’s easy to see why Holden describing O’Grady as “not woke in any way” has baffled fans.

BBC presenter Mared Parry was among those who questioned Holden’s choice of words, saying: “Amanda Holden’s ‘favourite thing about Paul O’Grady’ being that he ‘wasn’t woke’ has absolutely sent me.

“Is she talking about the same Paul O’Grady? Drag queen, queer icon, supporter of trans rights, anti-austerity king Paul O’Grady? Or does she just not know what woke means?”

O’Grady was a long-time activist and was outspoken about LGBTQ+ issues and austerity cuts, among other things.

In the 1980s and 1990s, amid the Aids crisis, O’Grady was known for his drag persona, Lily Savage. He was at the Royal Vauxhall Tavern when it was raided by police (who wore rubber gloves to avoid coming into contact with gay men) in 1987.

In 2010, on his self-titled talk show, O’Grady criticised the Tory Party and their austerity budget.

He said: “[Then-chancellor] George Osborne what do we think? Is it up or is it down? Do you know what, I’d sooner have Ozzy Osbourne as chancellor.”

O’Grady then invited his audience to join him in singing: “It’s the same the whole world over, it’s the poor what gets the blame, all together, it’s the rich what gets the pleasure, ain’t it all a bleeding shame.”

Since his death on Tuesday, tributes have poured in celebrating his activism.

The Royal Vauxhall Tavern said: “In 2021, Paul O’Grady visited The RVT with [The Peter Tatchell Foundation] and spoke about the now infamous ‘poppers raid’, which took place when Lily was performing on our stage in 1987 at the height of the AIDS crisis.

“A true hero to LGBTQ+ people, thank you Paul.”

Battersea, formerly known as Battersea Dogs and Cats Home, said: “ During the decade Paul worked with us, his love for dogs, cats & passion for animal welfare truly came to life. To quote Paul: ‘Taking any animal into your life will inevitably end in heart ache, but you don’t worry about the hangover when you’re at the party’.”

Writer Tom Knight said: “Before [American reality competition television series] Drag Race and social media it was rare for queens to break through into mainstream media, Paul was one of the few leading the way and smashing down barriers.

“Everyone loved him, but he preferred animals. RIP Paul O’Grady AKA the legendary Lily Savage, you will be missed.”