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.

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