In a Word: Who Put the Awk in Awkward?

Have you ever noticed how awkward the word awkward is?


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We English speakers are used to seeing the -ward suffix, indicating a direction or tendency of movement, in words like southward, backward, and afterward. But then a strange thing happens with the word awkward. Exactly what direction is awk? And how did the spelling of awkward, with that rare letter sequence -wkw-, become so, well, awkward?

It’s true the -ward in awkward is the same suffix we find in, say, northward. It’s from the Old English suffix –weard, literally “turned toward.”

Awk, derived from the Old Norse afugr, turned up in Old English and meant “turned the wrong way.” In the beginning, awkward meant either “turned or done in the wrong way” or “backhanded,” and it wasn’t the only awk word out there. Awky, awkly, and awkness are all attested in the English language, but they had become obsolete by the 18th century. Today, awk lives on only in the word awkward and its various forms.

The general sense of wrongness that awkward carried made it flexible enough to apply in many areas of life and love, so that today we can speak of awkward dancers, awkward situations, awkward angles, and an awkward load.

Have you read the word awkward enough now that it ceases to look like a real word? In my opinion, that isn’t just semantic satiation; awkward is autological — it’s a word that describes itself, like multisyllabic, noun, and unabbreviated. Awkward is awkward to write and to read.

Though that -wkw- combination is rare in English, it isn’t, I discovered, unique to awkward. It also appears in hawkweed, a plant related to the dandelion and with a similar yellow bloom.

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  1. ‘Awkward’, absolutely does describe itself. It’s also a rather unpleasant sounding word as well! If you ever wanted to a feature on the word ’embarrassed’, I’d love it. It too (to me) also seems to describe itself, although it’s not the harsh, ugly sounding word ‘awkward’ is.

    Quite the opposite really. ‘Embarrassed’ is a rather pleasant, positive sounding word; not the description of the uncomfortable, uneasy situation it actually is. Why if I didn’t know what the word meant, and someone I trusted (smiling) asked me if I’d like to be embarrassed, I might say ‘sure’.

    Unfortunately in life we unwittingly say ‘sure’ to both words (for all intents and purposes) since it’s built-in to this often awkward and embarrassing life! Sometimes it’s my fault, but often not. Thank goodness I’m a pretty smooth talker (and smiler) that can think quickly to fix the situation. HATE having to do that by the way, but it’s an important social survival skill both personally and professionally. Perhaps this is why I love entertainment (dark comedy) that revolves around a lot of embarrassment and awkwardness not handled well, Andy.


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