Daily Archives: February 8, 2010

awkward

This is just a perfect word for its meaning, isn’t it? You can hear the awk! of someone slipping on marbles, or trying to get a couch through a doorway, or finding himself at a dinner party with his ex, or going in through the out door or up the down staircase. The kw makes the same questioning, perhaps querulous, sound as qu, and the wkw just looks like a person trying to handle large and difficult things on each side – a pair of sedated albatrosses, perhaps. Oh, wait, add the a‘s: awkwa. Now they’re albatrosses with fish hanging out of their beaks. Or, if not albatrosses, auks (no relation, etytmologically). Or two grocery bags on each arm with a jug of pop in each hand. Or… oh, try it yourself! There are surely many awkward images that you can conjure up.

For all that, of course, awkwa is symmetrical, which isn’t necessarily all that awkward. Until you blow the symmetry with the rd, that is… like a couple of intruders into a nice, tidy little party. But the rd allows the awk to be followed by a draw-back… again, ever so appositely.

Where does this gawky awk-word come from? Well, the ward is the same as in backward and forward; it means “in the direction” and is related to Latin vertere “turn” (it is also related to worth via the sense “become”). And awk? It’s an adjective, not used by itself since the 1600s, meaning “in the wrong direction” – or, as we sometimes say, “backasswards.” That’s also what awkward first meant. Apparently awk wasn’t long enough – or awkward enough. But why stop there? My friend Barry Clegg, talking of self-describing words (e.g., pentasyllabic), mentioned awkwardnessful.

Awkward is something one often feels; it is often modified by somewhat or a bit. But various things are awkward, too. Family photos are a popular one lately – see awkwardfamilyphotos.com. But the top five nouns preceded by awkward, in reverse order, according to the Corpus of Contemporary American English, are situation, pause, moment, position, and, in the top number one spot of awkwardnessfulness…

silence.

Thanks to Margaret Gibbs for suggesting awkward.