January is a month of marking – essays, chapters as well as blogposts Here is another one, Klazien Tilstra’s first piece, which is far from awkward!
While reading a letter by Elizabeth Montagu (1720-1800), I was struck by the word awkward. In the letter, to her best friend Elizabeth Carter (1717-1806), on 11 July 1782, a few years after the death of her husband, Elizabeth Montagu writes
We are not so perfectly of ye rib of Man as Woman ought to be. We can think for ourselves, & also act for ourselves. When a Wife, I was obedient because it was my duty, & being married to a Man of sense and integrity, obedience was not painful or irksome, and in early Youth a director perhaps is necessary if the sphere of action is extensive; but it seems to me that a new Master, & new Lessons, after ones opinions & habits were form’d, must be a little awkward, & with all due respect to ye superior Sex, I do not see how they can be necessary to a Woman unless she were to defend her Lands & Tenements by sword or gun
In the letter Montagu shows herself a feminist ‘avant la lettre’ (and a rich woman possessing lands and tenements). But how about her use of the word awkward?
Awkward is used in the Dutch language as well: it is a popular loanword. The word was the winner of the Dutch contest Anglicism van het jaar 2013! According to the jury of the contest (including well-known linguists like Marc van Oostendorp and Nicoline van der Sijs), awkward was a welcome addition to the Dutch language. It fills a gap: it does not have a good short Dutch near-equivalent. It expresses social situations that are uneasy, shameful, and causing embarrassment. The organizers of the contest had spotted the loanword in German, French Spanish and South-African tweets as well.
The Oxford English Dictionary shows that the word has an interesting etymology. It is a combination of the Old Norse word awk and the suffix -ward , meaning something like ‘in an awk direction’: not forward, not backward, but awkward: ‘in the wrong direction’. The OED subsequently shows meanings ranging from ‘turned the wrong way’, ‘perverse in conduct’, ‘adverse to one’s course’, ‘clumsy’, ‘embarrassing’, and ‘rather dangerous’, although also mentioning that the entry is not fully updated. The first text in which the word awkward was spotted dates from the year 1340. Awkward is a very old word.
A search through the Intelex Past Masters database, accessible through the Leiden University Library, consisting of texts from mainly eighteenth and some nineteenth-century philosophers, historians and (letter) writers, shows that the word was very commonly used at the time. As many as 165 documents were found to contain the word awkward. Letter writers like Jane Austin, Charlotte Brontë, Elizabeth Montagu, Elizabeth Carter, Fanny Burney, Hester Lynch Piozzi, Samuel Johnson, William and Dorothy Wordsworth, Horace Walpole, Coleridge, and Edmund Burke, all frequently used the word: the search function in the Intelex Past Masters database shows exactly where and in which context. It is difficult to pin down the exact meaning of the word though. Two extra examples from letters by Elizabeth Carter give two extra possible meanings and contexts of the word.
From Elizabeth Carter a letter to Catherine Talbot (16 April 1754)
You charge me, my dear Miss Talbot, not to refuse such an offer, if it should be made me; but let me intreat you to consider how absolutely unfit I am in every respect for a court. Need I remind you of the very awkward, and even ideot figure I make in company where I am under the least restraint.
And one from a letter by Carter to Elizabeth Montagu (21 August 1767)
I hope you will soon give me the pleasure of hearing from you. It is excessively awkward and mortifying to me to be in utter uncertainty where you are
Awkward appears to be a flexible word: it can be used to refer to a whole cluster of meanings, best understood by its etymology, and can be used to describe opinions, feelings as well as situations. This has undoubtedly contributed to its survival and attractiveness.