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I have a question about the usage of the phrase "in the wake of" here:

We are still in the wake of discriminatory laws against women and children.

I could not find a good dictionary definition that fits this usage of "in the wake of". But, the author of the sentence appears to be a non-native English speaker. Could the sentence, then, be poorly written?

  • @DamkerngT. I would've understood the original sentence if it were "something happened in the wake of...". But the original sentence is "we are still in the wake of ...", and "we" is not an event. – meatie May 18 '15 at 3:21
  • @meatie, why would it be limited to events specifically? – Nathan Tuggy May 18 '15 at 3:36
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    Before voting to close this question, please consider that an ESL learner may have a much harder time understanding how a dictionary definition relates to this sentence than a fluent speaker would, and dictionary definitions of this kind of thing are often misleading. For example, the Macmillan definition referred to above is: "happening after an event or as a result of it". "We" aren't "happening", and discriminatory laws aren't an "event", but that's not what's wrong with the example sentence—what's wrong is that the metaphor doesn't fit the situation! – Ben Kovitz May 18 '15 at 4:00
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    Don't read "in the wake of" as "due to" or "caused by". In the wake of means a time frame. And this time frame is characterized by the end of something (either a singular event like an earthquake or a time frame like a war) as start point and when the affects of said event are over as the end point. Often you could rewrite the sentence with "in the years x to y" but don't because the exact time is less important than the event. – Stephie May 18 '15 at 4:17
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This is a wake:

wake

To be literally "in the wake of --" means that a boat went by, and you are in the turbulent water and waves behind it.

To be figuratively "in the wake of --" means

In the aftermath of, as a consequence of, as in "Famine often comes in the wake of war" (source, you'll need to scroll down a bit).

This is a fairly common idiom.

So the writer is saying we are still in the midst of the negative consequences of discriminatory laws.

  • I would've understood the original sentence if it were "something happened in the wake of...". But the original sentence is "we are still in the wake of ...", and "we" is not an event. – meatie May 18 '15 at 3:22
  • "We" is a group of people. Presumably, the author means "My country and everyone in it are still in the wake of..." – DJMcMayhem May 18 '15 at 3:38
  • Most dictionaries give "as a consequence" as the definition for "in the wake of". When I use this definition, the original sentence reads: "We are still a consequence of discriminatory laws against women and children." That's why I was confused. – meatie May 18 '15 at 4:29
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    @meatie - If you, a human being, were actually in the wake of a fast-moving boat or ship (the source of the metaphor), you would quickly come to understand that the (usually unpleasant) things you are experiencing are the result of you (not the experiences) being in the wake. The wake itself is a consequence of the boat's passing; your experience is the consequence of being in that wake. – Stan Rogers May 18 '15 at 6:46
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    My dictionary first gives the definition of "wake" (actually, several definitions, because "wake" means either "watch or vigil", or "trail of disturbed water or air after a passing ship or airplane"), followed by an explanation of the phrase "in the wake of" - with the preceding definition of "wake" the meaning of "we are in the wake off..." should be clear. – gnasher729 May 18 '15 at 18:39
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The relevant sense of "wake" is: the trail of waves or foam left by a boat as it moves through the water.

enter image description here

The wake is the white stuff, especially the trail immediately behind the boat. (A wake doesn't necessarily have foam, though.)

Your example uses the word "wake" metaphorically. "In the wake of X" is a common metaphor meaning: in the situation resulting from X, especially the end of X or the passing-through of X. The metaphor suggests that X has finished, its end caused a great disruption, and the new, post-X situation is temporary and unsettled but will eventually calm down, just like the jostled water behind the boat. For example, the book Embracing Defeat: Japan in the Wake of World War II is about Japan in the years immediately after World War II, when it was occupied by the United States and adjusting to a new form of government and a new position in the world.

I can't tell for sure, but the metaphor in your example might indeed be a non-native misunderstanding or even a pretentious abuse. The metaphor implies that discriminatory laws against women and children no longer exist, their removal caused great disruption, and now we are in a chaotic period of settling down after that disruption. I don't know if all such laws were recently repealed in Tanzania, resulting in social chaos, but from the author's other tweets, that unlikely event appears not to have happened. So, yes, I think it is probably poorly written.

  • Most dictionaries give "as a consequence" as the definition for "in the wake of". When I use this definition, the original sentence reads: "We are still a consequence of discriminatory laws against women and children." That's why I was confused. – meatie May 18 '15 at 4:29
  • @meatie Dictionary definitions are often wrong or too rigid, especially regarding "live" metaphors. These things are too complex and too flexible to explain correctly in a few words. But if you understand the metaphor, you'll understand it flexibly, the way native speakers do. I think having a picture in your mind helps a lot. – Ben Kovitz May 18 '15 at 5:08
  • I agree with this answer and the conclusion therefore has to be that it isn't necessarily poorly written. We can understand the metaphor (flexibly) and this is actually how the English language constantly grows and changes. – david piper May 18 '15 at 5:39

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