Awkward hurdle

The misuse of the word “awkward” says more about the speaker than the subject

By Peter Morfe

Generally I can accept the fact that part of going to college is leaving the sheltered world you once lived in and being bombarded by popular culture and campus quirks. Language is one of the first victims of this barrage, with generational, regional, local, and even clique-al colloquialisms and idioms finding their ways into the mouths of freshmen and lingering there until graduation. Since coming to college, “dude” has become a nervous habit of mine, I’m actively purging “I feel like” from my memory banks, and due to the prevalence of “oof” in my social circle, the derivative “ug” has become a part of my lexicon of interjections. Like I said, I’m usually OK with this, and even when it does irk me I try to remember that, with any luck, all of the bro-isms in my vocabulary will disappear like growing pains or acne.

Yet there is one word that is really starting to peeve me. At this point, I’m convinced it no longer really means anything, but instead just hides our own ridiculous shyness and collective lack of social skills.

Awkward. Awkward! Awkward. What does this word mean? When I think back to my childhood, I might have used it to describe feeling uncomfortable physically rather than socially. “My legs were situated awkwardly” or “That’s a pretty awkward place to put the bike.” Of course, I shouldn’t forget the most classic usage of awkward: English essays. I’m sure you remember when the teacher used to write “awk.” on your papers or you would tell a peer, “This sentence is awkward.”

But now? It’s all about “so-and-so is awkward,” “that was awkward,” or just “awkwaaaaaaaaard!”

It will be shown that this word is being misused by the majority of UChicagoans and that it has not even one ounce of meaning left to shake a stick at. I present to the court exhibit A: the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) definition of the word itself. First, we have the classic of my childhood: “In the wrong direction, in the wrong way.” Included in this description is “hindside foremost,” which is itself a bit awkward out of context, and “asquint,” which sounds a bit like the name of a tiny, awkward rodent to me.

There’s “Untoward or unfavourable for one’s purpose; ill-adapted for use; clumsy in operation,” which is fairly standard as well, but then we get the final definition “Not at one’s ease; embarrassed” or even “Dangerous to meddle with.” So when you call that kid in your math class awkward you’re actually saying he’s embarrassed? Or dangerous? Really?

A Google search of awkward pulled up sites devoted to awkward family photos, awkward school pictures, a comic called “Awkward Zombie,” and a blog titled “Awkward Things I Say To Girls.” Looking through these links, I was struck by how far we have strayed from the OED’s definition of the word. I saw no poorly oriented zombies and fewer embarrassed people—actually, many of them appeared to be enjoying themselves.

Finally, I came to the conclusion that what all of these uses of the word awkward have in common is their projection of their own feelings onto images, situations, and people. Looking through photos of odd families and reading odes to failed pick-up lines, I was less struck by the people in these photos or the lameness of the pick-up attempts than I was by my own feelings toward them. I felt embarrassed, ill at ease, a little out of place… Well, awkward.

I have to be fair: Language changes with the seasons and I agree that words should be used the way people choose to use them. That’s not really the point. No, instead I just want to point out that whether we’re short, tall, loquacious, or extremely introverted, we’re all students trying to find our way at UChicago, and when you use the word awkward you’re saying less about the person in question than you are about yourself.

It takes all types, as they say, and the fact of the matter is that awkward kid probably thinks you’re awkward, too. Yeah, you. In fact, he probably spends much less of his time thinking about you than he does working on the next Facebook or writing the next bestseller. So why not take a hint from him? Rather than sitting around giving people dirty looks or avoiding eye contact, try smiling, saying hi, cracking a joke—you might be surprised by what you find. Maybe that awkward girl will make you the VP of her new IT firm or that “that kid” will turn out to be the love of your life. Worst comes to worst, you might just realize that you’re the awkward one after all.

Peter Morfe is a second-year in the College majoring in physics.