Awkness: an old word made new again

In a recent conversation, I heard the word awkness in reference to a socially awkward situation. I hadn’t heard it before, but its meaning was obvious in context. After all, its cousin awks ‘awkward’ has been around a while; I’ve even used it myself.

When I looked into awkness, I had a surprise. It sounds, as I said on Twitter, like a millennial coinage – and it is, more or less. But not originally: the OED dates awkness to the late 16th century, defining it thesaurusily as ‘wrongness, irrationality, perversity, untowardness, awkwardness, ineptitude’.

The first citation is from a 1587 religious book by Philippe de Mornay (tr. Philip Sidney & Arthur Golding): ‘The skilfull can work much upon little, and by his cunning ouercome the awknesse of his stuffe.’ The citations continue till 1674, with the word also spelled awknesse, awknes, and aukness.

And then: obsolescence.

Well, not exactly.

OED entry for 'awkness'. Etymology: < 'awk' adj. + '-ness' suffix. Obsolete. Definition: 'Wrongness, irrationality, perversity, untowardness, awkwardness, ineptitude.' Citations: 1587: Sir P. Sidney & A. Golding tr. P. de Mornay, 'Trewnesse Christian Relig'. xxxii. 595 'The skilfull [man] can..by his cunning ouercome the awknesse of his stuffe.' 1615: S. Hieron 'Dignitie of Preaching' in 'Wks.' (1620) I. 602 'A reprobate awknes to all good.' 1658: W. Gurnall, 'Christian in Armour: 2nd Pt.' 448: 'So much awknesse and unwillingnesse to come to Gods foot.' 1668: W. Spurstowe, Spiritual Chymist Pref.' 5: 'Awkness to this beneficial employment.' 1674: N. Fairfax. 'Treat. Bulk & Selvedge' 171: 'By shewing the aukness or great absurdity on the other side.'

Awkness, according to Anne Curzan’s book Fixing English, got caught up in the debate over ‘inkhorn terms’, learnèd words borrowed in a flurry from French, Greek, or Latin that (its critics implied) required too much ink. The purists preferred what they deemed to be more native English words: outborn for foreign, foresayer for prophet, awkness for perversity. But awkness didn’t stick.

Richard Chenevix Trench, a Dublin clergyman and philologist whose work would fuel the project that became the OED, wrote in his 1857 paper ‘On Some Deficiencies in Our English Dictionaries’:

Families of words in our Dictionaries are often incomplete, some members inserted, while others are omitted; the family being really larger and more widely spread than they leave us to suppose. Thus ‘awk,’ which survives in our ‘awkward,’ has not merely ‘awkly,’ but ‘awkness,’ which none of them have found room for.

Samuel Johnson, for one, had found no room for awkness in his Dictionary of 1755, though he did include awk, describing it as ‘a barbarous contraction’. Awkly ‘untoward, perverse’ (c.950) and awky ‘untoward, difficult, awkward’ (1655) are recorded in the OED but scarcely at all elsewhere.

Middle English awk (‘probably a borrowing from early Scandinavian’, says the OED) led to Early Modern English awkness, and like awky and awkly they are labelled obsolete. They certainly didn’t thrive, but they did survive: A search in Google Books shows occasional uses in the intervening years – though probably not enough to consider their currency continuous, which brings us their recent reinvention.

It’s possible, of course, that people in the 18–20C were using the niche or more stigmatized awk forms more often than we imagine, in speech and informal writing, where their usage went unrecorded. Today we have far greater access to records of informal registers, and that access shows a revival especially of the slangy abbreviated forms.

Awk, awks, and awky all seem to have re-emerged as part of the vogue for clippings like totes, defo, and adorbs. Searching Twitter for phrases like so awk, so awks, and so awky reveals their renewed popularity.

Awkness, invented anew through awk + –ness, is far less common in Twitter searches, and I found no hits in the GloWbE or iWeb corpora (1.9b and 14b words, respectively). But it’s out there – as are awksy, awksiesawksiness, and even awksness, despite its relative awkiness.

What awk word will you be using – or inventing – today?

10 Responses to Awkness: an old word made new again

  1. IMO the awkness of that “wkw” in “awkwardness” is reason enough to cut it to size. But we’ll keep the word “awkward” just in case you’re lucky enought to round up all the letters and find a triple word score on the Scrabble board to put them.

    • Stan Carey says:

      Any awkwardness in ‘wkw’ is in its appearance rather than its sound, since the first ‘w’ is just part of a vowel sound. But it is an unusual consonant string: hawkweed is the only non-awkward-related word I can think of that includes it.

  2. Roger says:

    A prefix for non-smart cell phone: an awk-phone.

    • Stan Carey says:

      I’m not sure if I’ve heard that before or if I’m just imagining it.

      • Roger says:

        I called the non-smart cell phone I had last year an awk-phone
        because texting was so awkward that I never ttexted; and when the question of “do you have a mobile number?” came up, I had to say, yes, but (contrary to assumption) it is not a smart phone. That too justified the awk-coinage.

  3. daisyeditorial says:

    Stan (and readers), have you visited the Historical Thesaurus of English? It’s also a great resource. Awkness is in there with your 1587–1674 dates: https://ht.ac.uk/category-selection/?word=awkness&label=&category=&year=&startf=&endf=&startl=&endl=

  4. Edward Barrett says:

    Loving ‘awkness’ and its derivation!

    Off topic; but have you written anything about the Irish English usage ‘a scissors’, ‘a pliers’, etc?

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