Lexical Investigations: Awkward

A motley combination of Anglo-Saxon, Latin, and Germanic dialects, the English language (more or less as we know it) coalesced between the 9th and 13th centuries. Since then, it has continued to import and borrow words and expressions from around the world, and the meanings have mutated. (Awesome and awful once meant nearly the same thing.) Some specimens in the English vocabulary have followed unusually circuitous routes to their place in the contemporary lexicon, and this series, Lexical Investigations, unpacks those words hiding in our midst.


“Awk” is an obsolete word meaning “turned the wrong way,” and originally awkward just meant “in an awk direction,” just as forward means to move to the front and backward means to move to the rear. An awk direction could be back-handed, upside-down, or in reverse of the expected order (though if you compliment a professional tennis player on a great awkward stroke instead of a strong backhand, don’t expect them to feel flattered). In the sixteenth century, fradulent behavior that was not straightforward was said to be awkward—that’s a far cry from today, when sometimes the most awkward thing a person can do is be too honest.

These days, you might hear groups of teenagers acknowledging awkward silences. Over the last decade, high school and college students have occasionally used a playful hand gesture called “awkward turtle” to express a remarkably uncomfortable moment, though this has largely fallen out of use at this point.

Popular References:Awkward, a comedy series on MTV that premiered in 2011 about the life of teenagers. The Awkward Comedy Show, a documentary of stand-up performances by four comedians. According to the show’s website, “It’s a film to showcase a category of black comedian rarely witnessed: the nerd variety.”

Related Quotations:

“Young recruits are awkward in their marching, and clumsy in their manual labour.”

—George Crabb, English synonymes explained, in alphabetical order (1816)

“The awk end here is, of course, the wrong end, that which was not towards them.”

— Oxford Journals, Notes and queries (1853)

“I don’t believe she ever had an awkward age; she was probably graceful at sixteen.”

—Constance Fenimore Wilson, East Angels (1886)

“In comedy, awkward is king.”

—Robert Lloyd, LA Times, March 29, 2009.

Read our previous post in our on-going series Lexical Investigations about the word labyrinth.

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