The Grammarphobia Blog

How “awk” lost its way

Q: In your post about “awkward,” you mention a Middle English adjective “awk,” but you don’t cite any instance of it. Did it ever occur in ME as a word in itself, disconnected from the suffix “-ward”? By the way “awk” has a cognate in modern Swedish: avig (the wrong way).

A: Yes, “awk” was a word in Middle English. In fact, it was a word in early Modern English too, though it’s now considered obsolete.

“Awk” was an adjective in Middle English, and an adjective, adverb, and noun in early Modern English. However, the latest citation for the word in the Oxford English Dictionary is from the 1690s.

(Middle English was the language spoken from around 1150 to 1500, according to the OED, followed by early Modern English.)

The dictionary says “awk” probably came from Old Norse, where afugöfug, or öfig meant “turned the wrong way, back foremost.” Like you, the dictionary notes that the modern Swedish cognate, or relative, has a similar sense.

Oxford says “awk” had cognates in Old Saxon, Old High German, and Old Sanskrit. For example, the cognate in Old Sanskrit, apák or apáñch, meant “turned away.”

When “awk” showed up in Middle English, according to the OED, it had three meanings: (1) “Directed the other way or in the wrong direction, back-handed, from the left hand.” (2) “Untoward, froward, perverse, in nature or disposition.” (3) “Out-of-the-way, odd, strange.”

Here are the earliest examples for each sense, all dated from around 1440. The first two are from Promptorium Parvulorum (Storehouse for Children), an English-Latin dictionary; the third is from Morte Arthure, an anonymous poem based on the legend of King Arthur:

(1) “Awke or wronge, sinister.” (2): ”Awke or angry, contrarius, bilosus, perversus.” (3) “Off elders of alde tyme and of theire awke dedys [deeds].”

The adverb and noun appeared (and disappeared) in the 1600s, according to the OED citations.

The adverb was used in the phrases “to ring awk” (“the wrong way, backward”) and “to sing awk” (“in sinister or ill-omened wise”).

Here’s a sinister/ominous example from Philemon Holland’s 1600 translation of Livy’s history of Rome and the Roman people: “What if a bird sing auke or crowe crosse and contrarie?”

Finally, the noun meant “backhandedness, untowardness, awkwardness” when it showed up in the mid-1600s. Here’s an OED citation from a 1674 scientific treatise by the English physician Nathaniel Fairfax: “What we have hitherto spoken, will seem to have less of auk in it.”

In case you’re wondering, the noun “awk,” sometimes spelled “auk” or “auke,” isn’t related to the avian “auk,” a family of diving birds including the puffin and the extinct, flightless “great auk.”

The English name for the bird is derived from its name in Old Norse, álka, which gave Swedish alka and Danish alke.

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