Word of the Day: Languishing

Posted on Posted in American English Grammar and Usage, American words used in media, Business English, English lessons in New York, ESL Current Events, Online English lessons

Languishing is a word that probably hit its heyday a year ago.  You heard it and saw it on social media, news articles, and in everyday conversation.

Wait a second. Were we actually having conversations a year ago? On Zoom, maybe?

To languish per the Merriam-Webster dictionary (this teacher’s go-to dictionary) means:

to be or become feeble, weak, or enervated: Plants languish in the drought.

to be or live in a state of depression or decreasing vitality: He languished in prison for ten years

to become dispirited

to suffer neglect: The bill languished in the Senate for eight months

Shall we unpack that?

A cadaver (dead body) decays after death. Languishing is a kind of decay that happens while we are still alive.

Remember, in English we use the gerund (ing form) to express the name of the action. Languishing has become the word we use to express the feeling that many of us have during the prolonged pandemic.  It seems to encompass not only the hopelessness — the idea that this might never end, but also the resignation — the thought that though life goes on, it just won’t be as much fun.

Maybe at the beginning of the pandemic, we were more active and disciplined, going to online exercise classes, learning a new language, taking up painting, but over time we’ve become lazy.  We miss family get-togethers, hanging out worry free in a bar or cafe.  Even as the numbers go down, we live in a constant state of anxiety.

While most of us have returned to “normal” life, there are still profound changes. Many older people or people with lower-immunity still need to be cautious. Those of us with those people in our lives need to be cautious as well. Some people are still suffering with long-COVID. And many of us live in places where the number of cases is still high.  Here in New York City, some businesses demanded people return to the office — at least part time, until new cases turned up, and the plans were scrapped. 

All of this up and down — all these changes — have an impact. There are few COVID deaths, less chance that you’ll wind up in the hospital or even seriously ill if you’ve been vaccinated and boosted, but still the uncertainty exists. We can’t escape it. Even on a vacation, you face the stress of taking a test before you can come home.  

I wonder about my students. When the pandemic began, I was already seeing most of them online. Switching to 100% online lessons was easy.  But over time when work and recreation were all remote, More people wanted shorter lessons. We get tired of being in front of screens all day!  I have fewer students these days and more cancellations. Is it the recession?  Is it simply that with the labor shortage, people with jobs are less afraid of losing them so they don’t feel they “must” improve their English to remain competitive? Or is it something else — a feeling that none of this matters, that none of our actions are important, so why not skip the English class, or the Zoom Yoga, or the Peloton session, and just relax on the couch for a while?  

What keeps me going is the students who are still showing up. And I’ll tell you why:  I am blessed to be working with some highly successful people. They don’t have time to languish! Even in the middle of the pandemic, they were giving 100% to their jobs, and families, as well as doing things that were important to them like continuing their English language journey.  It was their discipline, drive, and optimism that helped pull me through. Their resilience was contagious, even though it was remote.

(If you would like to read more about “languishing,” here is a link to a New York Times article about the phenomenon. If you would like more information about English lessons. Please visit the home page to get started.) 



Words in the News: Woke

Posted on Posted in American Culture and Holidays, American English Grammar and Usage, American politics, American words used in media, Business English, English lessons in New York, ESL Current Events, ESL tips, Online English lessons, Tutoring

My advanced English students, many with high-level positions and graduate degrees, have lately been stumped by a one syllable word: woke.  It appears not only on social media, but often in news stories and opinion pieces.

Try as they might to use logic and context clues  to decipher its meaning, they are lost. The word I am referring to is “woke.” Here are three recent related examples

“Beyond that, however, unions appear to be an important source of political information for their members, potentially helping voters to focus on real policy issues as opposed to, say, the existential threat posed by woke Disney.”  — Paul Krugman, New York Times 4/4/22


In all three cases “woke” is being used derisively though this might not be clear to a non-native speaker who is unaware of the cultural nuance. 

Here is a brief explanation: 

The word “woke” is the past tense of the verb “wake.”  “Woke” has been used as an adjective within the African American community at least since the 1930s to mean to be awake or alert to racial prejudice and its impact and dangers.  It could also mean to be alert/aware of other things as well. (Here’s a link to a Wikipedia entry about this usage.)

“Woke”  was not often used by people outside of the African American community.  Social media changed that.  Several years ago, as groups such as Black Lives Matters gained more allies in other communities, the usage of the word spread — especially on social media sites. The word took on a more general appeal and could be used to describe being “woke” to many different types of injustice. 

Below is a photo of Secretary Marcia Fudge, from 2018 when she was a congressional representative:

Within a very short period of time, right-wing media and opinion-makers glommed onto the word and began to use it to mock people — especially high-profile white Hollywood types — who were using it. It became a signifier for right-wing pundits, similar to the term “politically correct” which they could use to brand people with whom they disagreed and shut down debate. 

It is now used almost exclusively derisively by right-wing media and politicians in the United States.  It is lumped in with other “buzz words” of the culture wars. Right-wing activists, such as Tesla billionaire Elon Musk have called “wokeness” (the noun form of woke) an existential threat to civilization.  Conservative school boards in Texas have banned some books written by African Americans because they feel knowledge of historical discrimination will hurt white students’ feelings and are part of what they call “woke culture.” However nobody on the left identifies as being part of “woke culture” except ironically.

All three of the above articles use “woke” ironically. The writers are not making fun of anyone for being “woke.” They are mocking the use of the word by the right-wing to scare the right-wing base into believing that there is a “woke mob” on the attack. All three examples of “woke” used in the beginning of this post refer to a recent law passed in Florida, popularly known as the “don’t say gay” bill.  This legislation bans the use of certain words and discussion of some topics in elementary schools. There is concern that this legislation could be used to fire teachers and to isolate kids with gay parents. The Disney company, a major employer in Florida, has opposed the legislation.  

In the first quote, with his ironic mention of “woke Disney,” Krugman is mocking  Florida politicians who make speeches against Disney instead of helping the people they are elected to serve. The second quote from twitter, makes a similar point.  If your political agenda is to rail against “woke culture” you aren’t doing your job. The third piece is from a satirical news article making fun of Florida’s decision to ban many math textbooks that they found too “woke.”  That is a based on a true story. Florida really has banned a great number of math textbooks recently.

Why is it important that people learning English know what “woke” means?  The word “woke” may be used humorously in conversation in an ironic way.  It may be used by people on the right to express disdain for people with whom they disagree on some cultural issues. It may be used by people on the left to make fun of people on the right making fun of them! It is used a lot in news stories and opinion pieces, and it can be difficult to understand these stories if you don’t understand the word.

(Comments on this post will be open for two weeks and will appear after moderation. If you are interested in taking English lessons with Marion, contact her here.)