Take “cool.” As subjective, shifty, and contextual as “cool” is, nearly everything is or isn’t IT. A sort of Heisenburg uncertainty principle of language governs the word—the first stage of becoming “uncool” is being identified as “cool.” Nothing stays cool for long. When something falls under that descriptor, however, it is solidly cool. What in this world is “nearly cool” or “barely cool enough”? “Cool” is a cool word, not just an adjective, but a phenomenon.
Over the last few years, however, another slang word has developed the same sort of power, “awkward.” And I’m not so happy about it. By the dictionary “awkward” means “difficult to deal with” or “lacking grace or ease,” but, as it’s used, its meaning is mercurial.
The students I teach frequently evoke the word. “Awkward!” they say in that roller-coaster dropping voice, as if they’ve just spied something—a toucan or a model T or a man dressed as an anvil—that simply must be pointed out. What they are referencing isn’t always as clear. I want to ask, “What was awkward about that?” but I have a feeling I’d just give someone another opportunity to use the word.
“Awkward,” like “cool,” seems easier to apply than explain. Users know it when they see it—even if they’d be hopeless to explain what “it” is. Sometimes “awkward” seems little different from “ouch” or “uh oh,” or any other brute exclamation responding to hidden causes. In a moment of social tension, after a subtle or not so subtle misstep in a public or semi-public dance, a general queasy discomfort arises, and someone labels the moment “awkward.”
I don’t much like the word. Besides being overused, it’s often a desperate declaration, an attempt to make something innocuous into something significant. Nothing adds to an awkward silence like saying “awkward silence.” Nothing makes you feel more awkward than eliciting the word.
The trouble with “awkward” and “cool” is that each has a reductive meaning. When, by definition, something is or isn’t—black or white—discussing it becomes nearly impossible. Some people wince when they hear “pretty unique” because things are or aren’t unique, but can uniqueness have degrees, can a thing be unique in some respects and not others? Doesn’t nearly everything have degrees?
Though “cool” neatly divides the world, at least it’s generally complimentary, positive. “That’s cool,” declares support or approval. Whatever cultural damage the marketing of cool has done, its colloquial use is largely benign.
“Awkward,” however, illuminates social blunders, pointing out what the awkward offenders don’t need pointing out. I wonder if being cited as awkward makes a person more or less so. I suspect it just makes them circumspect, compliant, less free or expressive. The best way to avoid the word, it seems to me, is to avoid speaking altogether. Take no risks and you will never be awkward.
Yet, here’s a really radical thought—what’s wrong with awkwardness? It might be awkward to talk about how you feel, but it’s sometimes necessary. It may be awkward to raise an objection or say what everyone is thinking but no one will say, yet I’m often grateful when people do.
I’m worried about a world where we avoid discomfort, where creating or experiencing discomfort causes censure.
These sentiments probably mark me as out of touch, a cranky person who takes words much too seriously. I can appreciate that perspective, and I’m not naïve. No crusade or blog post will eradicate “awkward” from our speech. The genie is over the dam, the water is out of the bottle, and something is always under the bridge.
Yet I can’t stay quiet, even though getting exercised by a word most people use thoughtlessly is a little…you know