Awkward?

I’ve been wondering when awkward become such a big thing.

AWKKKKWARD!

It’s a word that screams around the edges, all poky Ks and Ws and bird of prey ark ark noises beating behind the word. But how has it become such a defining negative emotion? Previously if something was awkward it was low-level embarrassing. The most-used phrase was almost tautology: ‘slightly awkward’. Not any more. Awkward can’t be ‘slight’. It is only full-blow, screeching, overblow and cartoonish.

AWK!

But why? Well, it might have something to do with the fact that we’re so connected now. Our social networks bring us together so that we know everyday details of hundreds of peoples’ lives. We are in touch with people who are more than acquaintances, caught as they are between the reassuring familiarity of friendship and the nodding terms of someone you just see around. You are likely to know the marital status, food likes, political leanings and recent activity of people you’d otherwise just say hello too and on some level, this makes us to communicate with them in a way that’s more personal than would be normal for someone you don’t really know. There’s a mismatch between actual friendship and the amount of information we hold about people and in the gap between…

…is awkward.

Before, it would have been embarrassing. Embarrassment is a concept wrapped up in society and social expectations: it was embarrassing to accidentally tuck your skirt into your knickers, or to see someone on the loo. Embarrassment is quite a catholic idea: there’s definitely a good dose of shame involved and it’s almost certainly partly your fault.

Awkward is different. The word itself is old. It was first recorded in 1520, meaning ‘in the wrong direction’, although the ‘awk’ part is even older. It’s a 14th century word that means ‘back-handed’. There are some lovely formations that have dropped out of use: imagine having words like awky, awkly and awkness at our disposal. The concept of ‘awkward’ blocks off shame and pushes it elsewhere. It might be off-key, but it’s probably not your fault.

Language changes all the time, but sometimes words and the way they move in and out of use can tell us something about who we are, and how we’re changing. And in this case, it looks like we’re finding new ways to express discomfort about proximity. Just like those urinals.

Image: Joel Teller

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