Lexical Investigations: Awkward

A motley combination of Anglo-Saxon, Latin, and Germanic dialects, the English language (more or less as we know it) coalesced between the 9th and 13th centuries. Since then, it has continued to import and borrow words and expressions from around the world, and the meanings have mutated. (Awesome and awful once meant nearly the same thing.) Some specimens in the English vocabulary have followed unusually circuitous routes to their place in the contemporary lexicon, and this series, Lexical Investigations, unpacks those words hiding in our midst.


“Awk” is an obsolete word meaning “turned the wrong way,” and originally awkward just meant “in an awk direction,” just as forward means to move to the front and backward means to move to the rear. An awk direction could be back-handed, upside-down, or in reverse of the expected order (though if you compliment a professional tennis player on a great awkward stroke instead of a strong backhand, don’t expect them to feel flattered). In the sixteenth century, fradulent behavior that was not straightforward was said to be awkward—that’s a far cry from today, when sometimes the most awkward thing a person can do is be too honest.

These days, you might hear groups of teenagers acknowledging awkward silences. Over the last decade, high school and college students have occasionally used a playful hand gesture called “awkward turtle” to express a remarkably uncomfortable moment, though this has largely fallen out of use at this point.

Popular References:

Awkward, a comedy series on MTV that premiered in 2011 about the life of teenagers.

The Awkward Comedy Show, a documentary of stand-up performances by four comedians. According to the show’s website, “It’s a film to showcase a category of black comedian rarely witnessed: the nerd variety.”

Related Quotations:

“Young recruits are awkward in their marching, and clumsy in their manual labour.”

—George Crabb, English synonymes explained, in alphabetical order (1816)

“The awk end here is, of course, the wrong end, that which was not towards them.”

— Oxford Journals, Notes and queries (1853)

“I don’t believe she ever had an awkward age; she was probably graceful at sixteen.”

—Constance Fenimore Wilson, East Angels (1886)

“In comedy, awkward is king.”

—Robert Lloyd, LA Times, March 29, 2009.

Read our previous post in our on-going series Lexical Investigations about the word labyrinth.


  1. Colleen Hiltz -  July 1, 2014 - 6:32 am

    Great article “Awkward turtle”, its helpful for me.

  2. ad -  June 28, 2014 - 3:03 pm

    the “awkward turtle” sign mentioned in this article is actually American Sign Language for “platypus”.

  3. Person -  June 9, 2014 - 1:54 pm

    My town still uses the expression awkward turtle………this is awkward

    • Anna -  June 13, 2014 - 10:02 am

      “I’m awkward”is another type of awkward!

    • Ryan -  June 14, 2014 - 6:08 am

      lol, I haven’t seen it in so long

  4. Ryan -  May 25, 2014 - 12:14 pm

    Awkward these days is just another word for naive. This is shown when the “awkward turtle” explanation is described. The awkward turtle does not even look like a turtle, but it is used to show something to be naive, weird, deformed, or awkward in this case. In this new definition on awkward, it makes sense when it is used in modern meaning. I don’t know how awkward became to mean naive, but it describes weird situations or feelings very well it seems.

  5. Sage -  May 15, 2014 - 11:52 pm

    I think it’s hilarious how it says that the awkward turtle “has fallen largely out of use by this point.” ha

  6. Ibrahim -  May 15, 2014 - 8:38 am


  7. Bella -  May 13, 2014 - 12:40 pm

    who else watvhes awkward???!! OMG, I love that show!

  8. DarkWingedAngel -  March 27, 2014 - 9:41 am

    Interesting stuff…but I did know ‘some’ of the stuff. And the stuff I didn’t know, well, like I said before, Interesting stuff.

  9. Brian -  March 26, 2014 - 8:36 pm

    “Many decades ago, I was taught in elementary school that the socially accepted practice is to use the masculine and the feminine would be assumed. That’s from the dark ages. You wouldn’t dare do that now.”

    I would. And still do. And those spineless, whimpering, politically correct cowards who wish to interpret it as chauvinistic are welcome to. And they will be wrong.

    When the gender is unknown, use the masculine pronoun. Period. And as long as I’m alive, there will be at least one person on this planet doing it right and not kow-towing to idiocy in the form of sensitivity.

    • EelSloth -  May 10, 2014 - 2:20 am

      Saves from a lot of kow-towing, yes, but why masculine? Why not feminine? Does it symbolize something? Is it at all somehow related to the masculine form dominating over feminine form, and that connects to males dominating over females? Perhaps it has nothing to do Maybe this is over-thinking, but hey, I’m just asking. I’d like to know why and how this grammar rule -(is it a rule? Or did it just become so widely used that it’s still accepted?)-came to be in the first place.
      Also, why is land often poetically called “her?” For instance, her land was bountiful with blooming fruits. (I made that up since I can’t think of any real quotes. But you’ve all seen something similar to this, with “her land” and stuff.) I get mother Nature and mother Earth, but does that connect to why many regions are referred to as “her?”
      I do know that many languages influenced by Latin and whatever else, two most commonly known being French and Spanish, have masculine and feminine articles and nouns. I wonder how that started. Also, does it connect to any of this, the whole essay of my previous two paragraphs?

      And again, why masculine?

      • Jeff Webb -  May 20, 2014 - 4:20 pm

        Why make the masculine forms of things the default when using English, you say?

        “Is it at all somehow related to the masculine form dominating over feminine form, and that connects to males dominating over females?”

        No. It has nothing to do with feminist activists trying to polarize the sexes and set them against each other. (Dividers should always have their motives investigated. Divide and what?)

        It is because the masculine is generic, and the feminine is special. For example, the male lion is simply called by the name of the kind of creature he is. He is “a lion”. Generic. The female lion gets her own designation of “lioness”. Special.

        This kind of thing filters throughout the culture related to the language as well. It is acceptable to us that, if there is a war or some other type of necessary fighting, that Males should be the ones who are fighting and risking death.

        Yet, for a great many of us, the thought of putting females in that position is abhorrent. By comparison then, man is generic and replaceable. Woman is special.

        It is a positive thing that is present in our language and culture. It kind of sounds mean toward men for it to be this way, but as a man myself, I don’t mind it.

        It feels right, likely because it connects to our very instincts, which we would follow even if we had no books or existing culture.

        We are the creatures that we are. Mind control can only change that so much.

      • Trevor -  June 7, 2014 - 6:55 pm

        Actually, if you look at the word’s morphology, i.e. man, and woman, it immediately becomes apparent. Man is the standard. it’s simple. basic. nothing is added to it. The feminine, however, has something added on to it – wo-man. It’s like this for many other words and languages too. Actor, and actress. Waiter, and waitress. In Spanish, el, ella.
        Why, however? It’s simply how the language developed, and could possibly have biblical reasons behind it.
        ‘This is now bone of my bones
        and flesh of my flesh;
        she shall be called ‘woman,’
        for she was taken out of man.’
        However, though I can’t remember, but from the linguistics class I had to take in college, I think there were / are some languages were the feminine is the base, and the masculine is what is added on to. I can’t remember what language(s), or why exactly, but it just has to do with the culture in which the language was developed. Whatever is considered the standard, and what is considered non-standard, or more accurately, gender neutral and gender specific, for whatever reason.

  10. Adapted Underdog -  March 25, 2014 - 3:00 pm

    @ John – I agree that adhering to the gender rule destroys the rhythm of any piece of writing, especially when it must be done repeatedly. There are two ways to adapt:
    1.) As you stated, use the masculine and infer the feminine. Somehow create a world where people will accept your attempt at creating continuity in your writing and not interrupt it by saying to themselves, “Why this misogynistic bastard…” thus making things even worse. Is that really where we are as a society?
    2.) As I do, if I set the trap for myself, before setting it off and losing my foot to it, I retrace my steps, delete delete delete and find a different angle. I won’t break many rules at this stage of my writing career, but I also don’t let the English language trample over me the way it seems to desire to.

  11. A Deaf Child -  March 25, 2014 - 2:18 pm

    …Well, maybe not EXACTLY correct. Your last sentence is, partly. >>;;

    • jacob -  May 12, 2014 - 10:46 am


  12. A Deaf Child -  March 25, 2014 - 2:16 pm


    You are exactly correct!

    I’m Deaf, and I sign American Sign Language. We have two different signs relating to this. “Turtle” is what the (hearing) high school & college kiddies like to use to refer to an awkward moment.

    This is the ASL letter A tilted with thumb facing the ceiling and a hand placed over the A, leaving just the tip of the thumb showing. You then wiggle your thumb – a turtle with its shell!

    We have exactly the sign that the OP refers to though – awkward turtle. But it has no relation to “turtle” at all! That’s what it got named in *English* because it somewhat resembled a swimming turtle.

    Hold out your left hand (or right, if you’re left-handed) flat but with your thumb separated from the rest (in other words, the letter L with the rest of the fingers out). Do the exact same with your right (or left) and place it on top of your first hand. Then rotate your thumbs in circles – ta-da! it resembles SOMETHING swimming (I don’t think it really looks like a turtle, more like a fish).

    We use “turtle” to refer to the animal, and “awkward turtle” to refer to awkward silences or moments. Although “awkward turtle” is starting to die out in Deaf slang, which is sad. It’s a good sign to describe a situation! Luckily people will still understand it.

    When an ASL student mixes them up, well, that’s awkward!

    • taylor fuller -  June 18, 2014 - 6:14 am

      im an asl student i love asl

  13. twirlima -  March 25, 2014 - 8:01 am

    I think being in an awkward direction is pretty awkward.

  14. poopyhed -  March 24, 2014 - 5:39 pm

    hah. funny.

  15. merp -  May 15, 2013 - 8:05 pm

    That akward moment when you’re about to hug someone extremely sexy and you hit the mirror

  16. John -  March 21, 2013 - 1:02 pm

    Please publish an article on the accursed gender trap. You yourself fell for it here, referring to “a professional tennis player” in singular as “them”. I do a lot of writing and I am constantly hitting the pronoun wall — having to say “him or her” or “his or her” which kills the rhythm of the sentence I’m writing and skews the story off in a direction it was not meant to take. Any advice? Many decades ago, I was taught in elementary school that the socially accepted practice is to use the masculine and the feminine would be assumed. That’s from the dark ages. You wouldn’t dare do that now. So how do we break the curse of requiring overly complicated verbiage in order to accommodate both genders? No one wants to offend him or her, but it is the antithesis of tight writing.

    • Kelsie -  May 11, 2014 - 7:18 pm

      I always use the masculine because using “them” or “their” when referring to a single person is grammatically incorrect. Using “his or her” or “him or her” gets too wordy and it messes up the flow.

  17. greg -  March 19, 2013 - 8:56 am

    If wrong means inappropriate and turn can mean event, or happening; it still works for me.

  18. Stephania -  March 19, 2013 - 12:23 am

    Awkward is Awkward- U-duhhhhhh

  19. 0813q -  March 18, 2013 - 6:18 pm

    neva new awk was a word (my opinion awk-WORD!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!)

  20. 0813q -  March 18, 2013 - 6:16 pm

    you people are awkward/word (i just came from slash article)

  21. Jane -  March 18, 2013 - 6:07 pm

    Meow (\__/)

  22. Vera -  March 17, 2013 - 9:27 pm

    But…our definition of awkward isn’t as misaligned as it seems.

  23. Mogs -  March 17, 2013 - 6:41 pm

    Lol I love the word awkward. Well that’s awkward

  24. Douglas -  March 17, 2013 - 5:46 pm

    Why do you always make a distinction between Anglo-Saxon and Germanic dialects? As though Anglo-Saxon isn’t a Germanic language.

  25. Cody -  March 17, 2013 - 12:57 pm

    “Over the last decade, high school and college students have occasionally used a playful hand gesture called “awkward turtle” to express a remarkably uncomfortable moment, …”

    Good grief. I’m glad I am significantly older than that. And I thought some other things were bizarre. Awkward turtle. Once again I am amazed how often I am reminded that no matter how much I have seen or heard, there is far more I have not.

  26. ostro -  March 17, 2013 - 12:49 pm

    The way I heard about the awkward turtle gesture is that it derives from locker room humor, e.g. when one’s penis is kind of shrunken from the cold and its head kind of peeks out from under the shrivelled scrotum, thereby resembling a turtle with its head peeking out from its shell. An awkward moment indeed. The awkward turtle gesture for such an awkward moment (and subsequently generalized to cover any other sort of awkward moment) was itself just said to be the way “turtle” was signed in one of the sign-languages for the deaf.

  27. callmeanything:) -  March 17, 2013 - 12:33 pm

    it drives me nuts when people overuse awkward. finally i just looked it up and found it didn’t mean what we thought it meant!
    Oh, and Raelyn? convoluted, plethora, shrinky-dink, slueth, fabulous (said dramatically w/ emphasis on “fab”, used when talking about oneself), spunky, bubbley…i’ll add more of my faves as i think of them

  28. Juli -  March 17, 2013 - 12:25 pm

    The comments are more entertaining than the article.

  29. billybob -  March 17, 2013 - 11:16 am

    that awkward moment when you throw your phone on your bed and it bounces off two walls, hits the fan, flies out the window, bounces off a stranger back inside and kills the cat.

  30. Safiyah -  March 17, 2013 - 6:40 am

    I’ve never seen “the awkward turtle”. Although my sister has this habit of calling everything awkward, especially when people are quiet for too long. She’s a fool. XD

  31. hazel -  March 17, 2013 - 3:48 am

    that awkward moment when almost every comment has the word awkward in it o.o

  32. Sean Mitchell -  March 16, 2013 - 11:46 am

    Awkward has another meaning not mentiioned here, which I assume is not used in American English. It means ‘difficult’, either in the sense of ‘obstinate’ or in the sense of ‘fiddly’. You might say “Stop being awkward”, “You’re just being awkard” to someone who nixes every suggestion you make. If you can’t comfortably manoeuvre behind the washing machine to fix that broken pipe, as you lie contorted on your back you might say “This is really awkward”.

  33. geek -  March 16, 2013 - 8:19 am

    AWK is a portable text and numerical
    processing language found on many platforms.

    This post is geeky awk

  34. Kris -  March 15, 2013 - 8:04 pm

    I knew this word for along time. Awkward moment of silence. This is an awkward word.

  35. Patrick -  March 15, 2013 - 10:43 am

    *Penguin. I ment awkward penguin meme.

  36. Patrick -  March 15, 2013 - 10:42 am

    So that explains why half of the awkward turtle is the opposite direction of the other half…

  37. roland -  March 15, 2013 - 7:26 am

    “Furl the sails” he said with an awkward swallow in the middle.

    A crew member secretly flipped him the bird.

    Being the youngest officer, and younger than most of the crew, his voice often betrayed him. Where was the arrogance and certainty he was bred to exude – and that he felt in his genes? -RC

  38. Spider -  March 15, 2013 - 1:56 am

    I’m a little creeped out, being that when I came here to look and see what all the definitions of “awkward” were, this was posted.

    Or, sticking to the theme of the other comments… That awkward moment when you got to look up awkward and find it posted on the front page.

  39. liona -  March 15, 2013 - 12:31 am

    that awkward moment when almost every comment has the word awkward in it o.o

  40. Andy -  March 14, 2013 - 6:47 pm

    Wow didn’t know that.Now back to homework! :)

  41. Jake -  March 14, 2013 - 10:57 am

    That awkward moment when you realize you can’t spell “fraudulent.”

  42. Nicole -  March 14, 2013 - 12:08 am

    I have a friend who would use the awkward turtle as a signal to save her from a guy who’s chatting her up or trying to dance with her when she’s not feeling it.

  43. April -  March 13, 2013 - 7:23 pm

    I love these articles, and finding the origins of words or new words. Do them more often, I check for new ones often. :D

  44. Corinne -  March 13, 2013 - 6:49 pm

    That awkward moment when Dictionary.com misspells a word……

  45. Crazy person -  March 13, 2013 - 5:16 pm

    This post is awkward

  46. Ben -  March 13, 2013 - 11:57 am

    So… Backwards turtle? :-3

  47. syntaxx -  March 13, 2013 - 11:49 am


  48. Nkele Mothapo -  March 13, 2013 - 11:05 am

    Thats awk

  49. Faith -  March 13, 2013 - 10:03 am

    Awkward..? Hahaa

  50. kassidy -  March 13, 2013 - 9:36 am

    that awkward moment when you didn’t even know there were other definitions to the word awkward

  51. Mikaela -  March 13, 2013 - 6:53 am

    *’innappropriate muffin’

  52. Mikaela -  March 13, 2013 - 6:52 am

    I am currently in highschool and whilst many people will acknowledge awkward silences, the ‘awkward turtle’ is still used as well as the hand gesture ‘awkward muffin’ which probably isn’t as widely known.

  53. Drew -  March 13, 2013 - 6:25 am

    That awkward moment when you read the awkward moment comment of someone else

  54. Ng Jun-Kai -  March 13, 2013 - 2:53 am

    @Melanie: No pun intended.

    Awkward is an awk-word.

  55. Emma -  March 13, 2013 - 1:12 am

    *awkward squid*

  56. Dylan -  March 12, 2013 - 10:31 pm

    I have a dig bick.

    That awkward when you read the first sentence wrong.

    That awkward moment when you just read that wrong too.

    This just got awkward.

  57. Nilesh -  March 12, 2013 - 9:28 pm

    Feel really awkward when we dont know the meaning

  58. Tasha -  March 12, 2013 - 9:01 pm

    Did you mean fraUdulent?

  59. Me -  March 12, 2013 - 5:17 pm

    yes melanie

  60. Unknown -  March 12, 2013 - 3:10 pm

    To Long

  61. Hunter -  March 12, 2013 - 2:10 pm

    “Well…” (crickets chirping) “This is awkward.

  62. Your Momma -  March 12, 2013 - 2:08 pm

    This moment is sooooooo AWKWARD

  63. Rachel Allison -  March 12, 2013 - 1:48 pm

    Love Melanie’s comment… haha

  64. omar -  March 12, 2013 - 1:40 pm

    these articles are usually quite insightful.

  65. Althea Hine -  March 12, 2013 - 1:04 pm

    I Love doing the “Awkward turtle” ! Strange to think such a word once only meant the wrong direction..

  66. Raelyn -  March 12, 2013 - 1:03 pm

    Awwwww so your telling me I’m not using my favorite word in the right context!?!?! Well that stinks! Well, now I’ll try to use it right. But in the mean time…anyone wanna suggest another favorite word?

  67. Melanie -  March 12, 2013 - 9:04 am

    The awkward moment when you find out the other definition of awkward


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