Monday, March 10, 2008

"Awkward," in more ways than one.

It seems that every time I post here I begin by apologizing for a long absence. My father passed away three weeks ago, so my attention has been understandably diverted. I haven't forgotten my final installment of English history, but today it's the word "awkward" that has captured my interest.

This funny little word came up in two unrelated conversations on Sunday, and I realized that I didn't know a thing about its background. The word itself is awkward, isn't it? It looks unwieldy on the page, with that bizarre wkw combination right in the middle, and you nearly swallow the initial vowel in pronouncing it. It's difficult to define, as well-- the OED listed seven main definitions with eighteen subcategories all together, and not one of them, I felt, encapsulated what most of us mean when we say "awkward."

The word itself is derived from a term that has long been obsolete: awk, from Old Norse ofug (which, it seems, had its roots in the Sanskrit apak, meaning "turned away.") Something that was awk was the wrong way round somehow-- perhaps literally backwards, possibly perverse or just clumsy and hard to deal with. To be awkward, then, was to go in an awk direction. Awkward today can mean ungraceful or ungainly, embarrassing or inconvenient, untoward or unfavorable; these are some of the definitions given by the OED. Social awkwardness, however, seems to me to be a little more complicated than merely tripping over the carpet or winding up with one's foot in one's mouth.

One of the two conversations I had about "awkward" concerned my difficulty in translating it into French. There's maladroit (roughly, clumsy") and mal a\ l'aise, literally "ill at ease" and also used for nervous, but to describe that horrible disjointed feeling one sometimes gets in uncomfortable social situations, these are both... well, a little awkward. In the second conversation, a friend proposed a definition of awkwardness as not having a defined social role to play or, upon having one, not knowing how to play it. This struck me as nearer the mark than what the OED had to offer, except for one thing.

Far down the list of Oxford definitions is this: "Not easy to deal with; requiring cautious action; euphemistic for ‘rather dangerous.’" Not many people connect awkwardness with danger, but when confronting an unfamiliar social situation, I'd wager that most will have, to some degree, the sinking fear that they'll screw everything up without knowing how to stop themselves from doing it. In the past few weeks, dealing with paperwork and insurance and family and funeral protocol, I've had that sinking feeling several times. It felt both awkward and dangerous, realizing that everything was changing and not knowing how to orient myself. (Facing decidedly awk, as it were.)

The very last definition in the OED entry provided this great quotation from a 1928 article: "‘How old are you, Bobbie?’ ‘I'm just at the awkward age.’ ‘What do you call the awkward age?’ ‘I'm too old to cry and too young to swear.’" That's "awkward" exactly-- conflicted, ashamed of one's gawkiness, afraid of making some unpardonable blunder. Then again, that may just be me.

Sunday, March 2, 2008

Words from Spanish: quixotic, picaro/picaresque & peon

This week's post is a follow-up (& further explication) of a few of the words from last week's list of Spanish-derived English words.

We all know the story of Don Quijote, right? Written by Miguel de Cervantes in Spain in the seventeenth century, Don Quijote de la Mancha tells the story of a low-ranking Spanish noble who, head filled with impractical ideas of being a gallant knight (having little to do, he spent most his time in his library, reading stories of their brave actions), decides to set out on an adventure of his own. Windmills become giants to be battled; farmhands become faithful squires; barbers' basins become prized helmets. This novel is a cultural legacy in Spain and a source of great pride for Spanish people. (My experience in Spain is that everyone knows and loves the story of Don Quijote -- but few have actually read the book.)

From the archaic spelling, Quixote, we've derived the word quixotic. Much like Sir Quixote, a quixotic person is one whose mind is filled with imaginative ideas, very loosely tied to reality, and with little heeding of practicality.

Speaking of novels, a picaresque novel describes the adventures of a person who is sometimes dishonest but easy to like. The Spanish word picaro means rogue or rascal, and the Spanish genre, called picaresco, developed and flourished in Spain in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. These novels depict a low-class rogue living by his wits, an anti-hero of sorts. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, by Mark Twain, is sometimes considered a picaresque novel.

Lastly: the word peon in English comes directly from Spanish, peón, a word for an unskilled laborer, typically used to describe farmhands, or anyone performing a job that requires little skill and menial labor.

As we saw from the brief list in last week's post, Spanish's influence on English is large and wide-ranging; these words are barely a scratch on the surface.