Language Pulsations: Awkward

Awkwardness courtesy of Alli at Hyperbole and a Half

“That’s so awk!” “Awkward turtle!” “Stalkward!” “Wow, awkies…” “Awksome!” It seems like teenagers these days cannot get enough of the word awkward. However, the word happens to have a rather awkward etymology.

It comes from awk, a Middle English word meaning “back-handed, wrong way around, perverse,” added to the adverbial suffix -weard. As it turns out, “awkeward” was a directional term that meant “in the awk (i.e., wrong) direction”—this is why “awkward” is similar in spelling to the likes of “toward,” “forward,” and “backward.” Imagine—in old forms of English, it was acceptable “to go awkward” just like you we can “go forward” today!

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, in the sixteenth century the word’s meaning of “perverse” extended into a new meaning of “froward, untoward, perverse in conduct” (and yes, “froward” is a real word, not a typo). For instance Shakespeare writes in King Henry VI, “Was I…twice by awkward wind from England’s bank/ Drove back again unto my native clime?” (Sometimes out of context, Shakespeare sounds a little too much like Master Yoda.) From here, it only took a couple hundred more years of semantic broadening for awkward to develop the current meaning of “clumsy, inconvenient, unskilled, graceless, cumbersome.”

Courtesy of PostSecret

Today, cool kids know that it is fun to add -ward to the end of other words in order to create new combinations that emphasize the awkwardness inherent in the original words. One example is “stalkward,” a combination of “stalker” and “awkward,” which the Urban Dictionary verbosely defines as “When someone stalks another individual via facebook, myspace, phone conversations, etc. and it gets really awkward to a point … [and] they’re just really weird.” However, the fact that -ward is an adverbial suffix limits our creativity in this regard—the words start sounding like directional adverbs. We start wondering–maybe “stalkward” means “in the direction of the stalker”?

(The, uuh, really cool kids solve this problem by slapping “awk” at the beginning of words to get mutants such as “awkman,” “awksome,” “awktopus,” and “awkwadorable.”)

It seems fairly commonplace in our language for directional words to be or become invested with value judgments. For instance, our word “left” comes from an Old English word meaning “weak, foolish,” because unlucky forces were connected with the left side. Similarly, our word “sinister,” meaning “malicious, ill-willed,” was originally a Latin word that meant “left, on the left side.” The word “sinister” got its bad connotation because Romans used it in augury to mean “inauspicious, unfavorable”—birds seen flying on the left hand side were regarded as portents of misfortune. In fact, the taboo against leftness was so strong that it was necessary to use a euphemism to refer to it (in the same way that we use euphemisms like “copulation” to refer to the taboo subject of sex).

But the word “right” is actually the most etymologically awkward word of them all. It began as a directional term meaning “straight, direct, forward,” concurrently meant “right, true, just” (just like how “straight” today can mean “morally honest”), and then eventually began to mean “on the right side, opposite of left,” because of the notion that the right hand was the more “correct” hand.

Photo by Jessica Herrington in the National Portrait Gallery competition

To return to the originally subject—one has to wonder why there is such a profusion of awk among teenagers today. Is it because we are frequently in social situations and therefore have a greater chance of bungling interactions? Is it because we are more outspoken about taboo subjects and therefore commit solecisms on a more frequent basis? Is it because our pluralistic society brings us into contact with more people of different perspectives and with different ideas of social appropriateness? Are we all tactless nitwits? (I guess I should speak for myself.) Or, is it because pointing out awkwardness is a universally effective way of defusing tense situations?

I would keep speculating about awkward, but it’s really making feel a bit awk.

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