Awkwardness goes in the wrong direction

The story of a familiar word shows how words carry their history within them.

Andy Nelson
Commuters head home on the Metro in Washington, D.C.

I had what you might call an awkward encounter the other day. It happened right at my desk, with the word awkward itself.

It’s a word I’ve known all my professional writing life, but just the other day, it occurred to me to wonder: Where is it going? 

That second syllable, -ward, is “an adverbial suffix expressing direction.” The syllable comes from an ancient root meaning “to turn, to wind.”

When Thomas Wolfe counseled in the title of his first novel, “Look Homeward, Angel” (quoting a phrase from John Milton’s 1637 elegy “Lycidas”), he meant “Look toward home.”

Most of the “ward” ideas are conveyed nowadays not with adverbs (“He headed homeward”) but with prepositional phrases with toward: “toward home” or, more abstractly, “toward a resolution of the problem.”

That’s probably just as well. Otherwise, we’d end up with a lot of ad hockery: officeward, for instance, as the counterpart to homeward, or even Starbucksward, for those who want to ensure that “third places” are well represented in the lexicon of adverbs.

So where is awkward heading? Toward “awk”? More or less, yes – speaking strictly etymologically. The Online Etymology Dictionary explains awkward as going back to the middle of the 14th century and meaning “in the wrong direction.”

I can imagine somebody coming out of a tavern in the evening, climbing onto his horse, mistaking one dimly lit path (was there any other kind in the 14th century?) for another, and finding himself a few hours later in the wrong village. That would be a quintessential “awkward situation.”

Awk, as a stand-alone adjective, meant “turned in the wrong way.” When I was in college, I had a professor who, when any of our class would turn a phrase the wrong way in writing a paper, would note in red ballpoint ink in the margin of the page, “Awk!”

It became the thing one wanted most to avoid.

The Online Etymology Dictionary reports that there were other formations from awk, none of them surviving: awky, awkly, and awkness. Given the enduring human capacity for dumb mistakes, I should think we could still be getting some use out of these words if we hadn’t, in effect, set them out on the curb for recycling.

Awk itself went obsolete in the 17th century. Awkward lives on, of course; it’s meant “clumsy” since at least the 1520s. Awkwardness was in use to mean “social embarrassment” by the late 18th century.

But that sense of misdirection remains embedded in the word. Words tend to carry their history within them.

They’re like names for real estate subdivisions that may seem a bit fanciful but tend to have a nub of truth to them. (“There was a farm here under all this asphalt? Really?”) 

The clues are there if you know where to look.

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