Every language has those words, and plenty of them, that can’t really be reduced to their translations or dictionary definitions. To be fair, that’s the case with most words. Meanings derive from context; from the intentions of the speaker and from the connotations they raise in the listener.
Words have specific histories. Sometimes their meanings depend on the intonations in which they are used, or from the body language or facial expressions that accompany them. Sometimes words can even mean two exactly opposite things. ‘Cleave’ is the classic example in English, but even think of the word ‘love’: ‘I love Lisa’, means one thing. Now think of the same utterance spoken with eyes rolled: ‘Yeah, I love Lisa’; which effectively means that my feelings towards Lisa are less than positive.
Don’t you just love these sorts of ambiguities?
Anyway, in context, most words always mean more (or less) than their dictionary definitions would let on. Which is what makes them so interesting and valuable. And the best of these are basically like really good clues, to put it simply, about what matters to a given set of people, what drives them, how they see the world.
So anthropologists trying to make sense of a society or culture different than their own often choose such words to focus on. A great recent example is found in Gabriella Coleman’s fantastic book on hacker culture – Hacker, hoaxer, Whistleblower, Spy – where she devotes a lot of much deserved attention to the concept of lulz. What are the lulz? Well I could try and explain, but I would be doing it an injustice. Coleman uses dozens of pages to explain the concept of lulz, and she does this for a reason; the word means much more than any simple sentence or paragraph could convey. And in meaning as much as it does, it teaches us a great deal about the people using it.
In other words, if you’re gonna try and understand what motivates Anonymous, for example, you need to first appreciate, in a very nuanced way, the meaning of the concept of the lulz.
Another great example of such a deep engagement with a single word or phrase is from this lecture by anthropologist Michael Wesch, where he presents the audience with ‘a brief history of whatever’. ‘Whatever’ is not merely an extremely common – and therefore meaningful – word, but its shifting meanings can also be used as a metaphor for the process of shifting sensibilities among young Americans over the past couple of generations. And it’s a great lecture anyway, so give it a look.
Or not. Whatever.
So anyway, there’s at least one such word in the English vocabulary whose story has not yet been told (well, as far as I know, anyway). A word that’s not quite definable, not quite translatable, and at the same time extremely common and meaningful. A word that if I could get my head around it, I feel, I could claim to know a bit more about the people who use it. A word that is just familiar enough to me that I can use it myself in a way that may seem natural; but that is at the same time just foreign enough that when I’m using it I always feel like I’m experimenting just a little bit.
Like someone is likely jump out from behind a plant or something and say “nope, sorry, you’re using it wrong’.
And wouldn’t that be awkward.
Awkward. So many people use this word, in oh so many contexts. But what does it mean? What do they mean?
My initial intention in this post was to produce, similar to Wesch, a brief history of ‘awkward’. But this would take more time and resources than I can currently invest. So instead, I just thought I’d lay out some thoughts about this concept, in a very unsystematic way. Basically what I’m wondering is what motivations, sensibilities, imaginations, concerns and values are in action when someone describes something or someone (or crucially, themselves) as awkward?
Dictionary.com defines it as any one of the follows: lacking skill or dexterity; lacking grace or ease in movement; lacking social graces or manners; hard to deal with; difficult; requiring skill, tact, or the like; and finally, embarrassing or inconvenient; caused by lack of social grace.
I know I know, nothing is more of a cliché than spicing an article with a dictionary definition. I can’t believe I just did that. Jesus. How awkward.
So anyway, according to the dictionary, awkward means either a lack, or the consequence of a lack. Meh. Come on. It has to mean more than that doesn’t it?
I think any one of these definitions tells a partial story at best. Not every lack of skill is seen as awkward. Not even every embarrassment or inconvenience caused by a lack of social skill is considered awkward either. When ‘awkward’ is uttered, an affect is invoked that goes beyond, I think, embarrassment or discomfort, or at the very least denotes a very specific incidence of those.
Urban Dictionary already tells a slightly different story. Not constrained to the formal rules of dictionary definitions (whatever those may be), this user-generated source often provides more intuitive and immediate definitions that somehow manage to capture not only the meaning of a word, but also its essence; its spirit, if you will. 2235 users ‘liked’ the following definition of awkward (as opposed to 417 who took the trouble to actively ‘dislike’ it): “passing a homeless person on your way to a coin star machine.”
I love this definition (no rolling of the eyes needed), because it somehow represents that ineffable nature of awkwardness; it’s not necessarily a ‘lack’ of anything, nor the result of such a lack. It’s just what sometimes happens between people when certain situations occur. Oh and confusingly, it’s also the situations themselves. So passing a homeless person while holding a bucket of change is awkward. And the feeling you get when this happens is awkward. And the look he gives you is awkward. And you’re a pretty awkward person, anyway.
Most people hate awkward moments. But others seem to relish in them. Some are oblivious to them. Some are hypersensitive to them. But whatever their affinity toward them, a lot of people seem to describe so many of their experiences, as well as events and people, as being awkward.
How did awkward become such a common phrase? Well, I just checked it on Ngram, and it turns out that awkward isn’t really any more common than it used to be, at least in terms of how many times it appears in books. But I think I can explain it in one of two ways (or both). First, awkward in the sense of weird, unexpected or uncomfortable isn’t new at all, and has been around for ages. At the same time, ‘awkward’ in what I suspect, at least, is a rather recent usage (as in meaning that social awkwardness of embarrassingly not knowing what to say), would not necessarily find its way into so many book. Or maybe I’m just wrong and this meaning is just not recent at all. I don’t know.
So why do we say awkward so much? And if it’s such an important word, why doesn’t it exist in Hebrew, for example?
As per the first question, I guess it all comes does to that feeling many of us share of wanting to always be in sync, socially speaking. Always wanting to know the right thing to say. Always wanting to be told what we expect to hear. Always wanting to have a grasp of the situation. And when those expectations aren’t met, like when social rules are broken, or when we’re at a loss for words, a certain kind of feeling ensues. A feeling of powerlessness; of confusion or anxiety. And at that moment, everything sort of feels like it’s falling apart. Not only our composure (“It just felt awkward”), or the interaction itself (“we just had a really awkward conversation”) but our whole selves (“I can’t believe how awkward I was”), as well as the person in front of us (“and she was awkward too, by the way”).
Until eventually nothing makes sense any more, and everything just turns into a big pile of awkwardness (“I dunno, everything just turned into a big pile of awkwardness”).
There’s really no reason to think this feeling is in any way new. And while I do suspect it’s slightly more common in some cultural contexts than others, I don’t see why it should be more common in English speaking countries than in Israel, for example. So what’s going on? Why is it still so popular in English, yet non-existent in at least one other language (and probably many more)?
I think the explanation would have something to do not with the existence of the feeling itself, but with the attention given to it. What is unique in the word ‘awkward’ is not the fact that it describes a certain experience; but that it turns it, very consciously and deliberately, into an on object of reflection. Basically, it allows us to talk about the feeling at length. To tell stories about it. To delve into it.
In other words, English speakers have been going through a process of fetishizing this uncomfortable experience now known as awkwardness. Searching for ‘awkward’ on google bring up the following results (I’m not including results from online dictionaries): A TV series actually named Awkward. A YouTube video entitled 18 Awkward Hairstyles That’ll Make You Smile. A radio program about Six awkward moments at Jay Z’s Tidal relaunch. A photo blog post entitled The most awkward hover hands in awkward dude history, and a website called Awkward Family Photos.
I see a pattern here. Do you? Awkward has become a form of entertainment.
Certain TV shows have made noting socially awkward moments into an art form. Seinfeld is a classic example. But as much as its creators relished the humour in those moments, it was Larry David’s later project, Curb Your Enthusiasm, that really sunk its teeth into them. Some scenes in Curb literally make me cringe with discomfort. This happens especially when Larry David’s character disregards all the rules of appropriate social conduct. He knew this would have this effect, of course. That is what he was going for. And yet I love this show. As he hoped people would.
Awkwardness is mesmerising. It is entertaining. It is also, currently, marketable. We just can’t get enough.
So where does this take us? I’m not sure, to be honest. Maybe us English speakers have gotten so used to thinking deliberately and explicitly about the nuances of social interaction; while at the same time growing ever more sensitive to failures in that regard; that the concept of awkward just emerged to the A-List of popular words as a result.
And as always, between and betwixt emerging lay sensibilities, cowers the anthropologist in pursuit of even the vaguest of valuable propositions. I dunno. Whatever. God that’s awkward.