Monday, January 16, 2012

preserving the integrity of the English language, part 2

Last summer I wrote a post decrying the use of a powerful word that has since been rendered meaningless by its improper usage and overuse, the word "epic." Today I'd like to talk about another word in common parlance that has suffered even greater mistreatment. The word is "awkward."

If you logged onto Facebook over the weekend you likely saw this captioned photo of (left to right) Matthew Lewis, Rupert Grint, Harry Potter, er, I mean Daniel Radcliffe, and Tom Felton. I imagine it was taken after a performance of the Broadway musical How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying starring Harry Potter as Daniel Radcliffe as J. Pierrepont Finch (was that joke funnier the first or second time? Let me know in the comments below). (Apparently no one told Rupert about the taboo of wearing the t-shirt of the performance you're seeing to the actual performance.)

Image from here

I'm trying to understand this "awkward moment," and in the hope of doing so, I've consulted the collective knowledge of famed lexicographers Noah Webster and the brothers Merriam, Charles and George.

Definition of AWKWARD

1 obsolete : perverse [Had we been discussing the sex appeal of these four young men 10 years ago at the debut of the first Harry Potter film then, yes, this obsolete definition would be quite fitting.]

2 archaic : unfavorable, adverse [Any man might find it unfavorable or adverse to be less attractive than the next guy but Rupert Grint, Daniel Radcliffe and Tom Felton have a fairly large advantage over the "next guy": they were in all those Harry Potter movies.]

3 a : lacking dexterity or skill (as in the use of hands) [This misuse of awkward has nothing to do with dexterity.]

3 b : showing the result of a lack of expertness [Perhaps the author of the caption thought the juxtaposition of Rupert, Daniel and Tom next to ugly-duckling-turned-swan Matthew Lewis appeared awkward, revealing their "lack of expertness" in being "hot." However, since the author is quite clear that the awkwardness lies in Matthew's becoming the "hottest" of the lot, this definition does not fit; in the case of these four gents, I believe overall "hotness" has to do more with heredity than some acquired expertise.]

4 a : lacking ease or grace (as of movement or expression) [Sure, this isn't the most flattering photo of Ron, Harry and Draco but the usage of awkward here has nothing to do with how they look at a given moment.]

4 b : lacking the right proportions, size, or harmony of parts [Uh, one way for things to get awkward quickly would be to start talking about the "harmony of parts" and "proportions." Moving on...]

5 a : lacking social grace and assurance [The fact that these four would pose together for what appears to be a casual photo infers friendship, for which at least a small amount of "social grace and assurance" is required.]

5 b : causing embarrassment [I think this is the definition of awkward the captioneer* had in mind. Who is embarrassed here? Matthew, Rupert, Daniel, and Tom all look quite comfortable in each other's presence. Is this one of those situation where we're supposed to be embarrassed for them? Sure, "that unexpected moment" certainly doesn't have the same ring to it but it's the phrase the captioneer should have used.]

6 : not easy to handle or deal with : requiring great skill, ingenuity, or care [What skill is required to deal with the fact that Matthew Lewis ended up "hotter" than his Harry Potter co-stars?]

I have nothing against the word awkward, I'm simply attempting to advocate its proper use. Consider eliminating the word from your personal vernacular for a few months and employing one of its many synonyms in its place. Your vocabulary will thank you.

*Is it hypocritical of me to use made-up words in a post that deals with the abuse of language?


  1. Is it possible for my "vocabulary" to thank me? If so, will you please explain how that might happen? I'm not sure what to expect.

    1. I can't speak for yours but my vocabulary likes leaving thank you notes.

  2. Oh, and the Harry Potter joke was funnier the second time. By the way, I heard Harry Potter makes a cameo appearance in The Expendables 2.

  3. I have a few friends who I went to a show with. They went to the merch table and bought the headlining band t-shirts and put them on right away. I didn't say anything. Then I went to another show with them. I already owned a shirt for one of the bands playing that night and they asked me why I didn't wear that shirt. I replied "because I'm wearing this one." For a second I felt like I should explain the principle behind it all, but then I thought "maybe it's just a chick thing," which is the consolation answer I often give myself when I know I'll never get someone to understand my perspective. The point is, thank you for confirming to me that I am right. If I had tried to argue with them, it just would've been awkward....

    1. May it henceforth be known that wearing a band's t-shirt to their concert is called "pulling a Rupert."