Awkward—Old Norse compounded

Words about words

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“The Ruins of Lindisfarne Priory” (1798) by Thomas Girtin.

Asker, Oslo

The word awkward has many meanings, all indicating something lacking or undesirable. It’s a modifier mostly used as an adjective but also as an adverb. It’s a compound of two words, the obsolete noun and adverb awk and the suffix –ward, both with linguistic lineages that evidence the influence of Old Norse on the languages that evolved around the North Sea.

The word awk most likely comes from the Old Norse word afug, or maybe öfug or öfig, meaning “turned the wrong way,” with the back foremost. Its first appearance in Old English is in the 10th-century translation of the Lindisfarne Gospels, written in Latin sometime in the mid-eighth century in the monastery at Lindisfarne off the west coast of England. In 793, the Lindisfarne Monastery was sacked by the Vikings in a raid, now considered to mark the beginning of the Viking Age.

The suffix –ward comes from the Old English weard, used in the sense of “having a specified direction.” It’s related to the Old High German suffix ort and the Old Norse suffix urð-r, though neither of these suffixes is found in Old English.

The word awkward first appeared in 1340, in the Hampole Priory Conscience, written in the priory of the small village and civil parish of Hampole in South Yorkshire, England. The word Conscience had then taken the place of the obsolete word Inwit, which connoted wisdom in an “inward sense of right and wrong.”

This article originally appeared in the Oct. 9, 2020, issue of The Norwegian American.

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M. Michael Brady

M. Michael Brady was born, raised, and educated as a scientist in the United States. After relocating to the Oslo area, he turned to writing and translating. In Norway, he is now classified as a bilingual dual national.