Wow. Awkward.

« previous post | next post »

Today's Sally Forth:

And yesterday, there was a relevant lolcats posting:

"Awkward" as a comment on a socially embarrassing or interpersonally uncomfortable situation is an entirely regular and straightforward use of a word that's been around in this sense since the early 18th century. And preceding "awkward" with the interjection "wow" is similarly regular. Still, I have the impression that these are recently fashionable idioms.

It's not easy to check whether this is really true, or just another instance of the Recency Illusion. But here's some evidence, focusing especially on the "Wow, awkward." (or "Wow. Awkward.") variant.

There's a "wow, awkward" web site, with an associated twitter feed, though it doesn't seem to have been updated since August of 2009.

All the examples of "wow awkward" from a Google Books search seem to be fairly recent, e.g. Cylin Busby's 2007 juvenile fiction The Campfire Crush:

"Wow, awkward," Eric says under his breath.

The earliest instance of "wow, awkward" in a Google Groups search seems to be from 10/12/2007 in  And the earliest genuine example in a Google News Archive search is from 2/7/2007.

Moving backward in time, Matt Hutson led a 10/8/2006 blog post with "Wow. Awkward." (Hi, Matt!) Matt was close to the leading edge, but the very earliest instances in a Google Blogs search seem to be from December of 2005.

So pending Ben Zimmer's arrival with an example from Emily Dickinson's diary, I'm going to go on thinking that "Wow. Awkward." is indeed a newly fashionable locution; and that simple "Awkward." probably is as well.

[Update — see this discussion of the "awkward turtle" gesture, which was new to me:

Being ‘awkward’ was so in last year in the States.  Everything was awkward.  Getting to class late was called awkward.  Things that were ironic (bitchy chick getting ass handed to her on Finance exam) were mislabeled as awkward.  Embarrassing moments (not remembering how it is that you ended up naked at Tavers) were called awkward.  And actual awkward moments (saying/doing the wrong thing at the wrong time to the wrong person) were called out and reveled in – as if calling a moment awkward brought great communal catharsis.  It’s like you actually wanted awkward moments to happen so that you could call them awkward – and when none happened you called all other occurrences awkward.  If I recall correctly, it was kind of fun.

Thus, the emergence of the lastest Generation Next meme: The Awkward Turtle.  The Awkward Turtle is a gesture (see video) that’s performed when an awkward moment happens.  Rather than just saying ‘awkward’ in a sing-song voice, you (you being a college sophomore) put your hands together and move your thumbs to make the Awkward Turtle swim.

Apparently it's, like, awkward that I didn't know about this, because Matt Yglesias blogged about it, citing a 2/2006 article in the Brown student newspaper, and it was in the Washington Post and everywhere. ]


  1. Johnny Trash said,

    March 3, 2010 @ 10:28 am

    What's new about this is saying it aloud to the person with which you have just become awkward. I use this as a way to defuse an awkward situation by turning it immediately into a self-deprecating joke. What has already become a cliché is to say "awkward" in a singsong voice like one might say "Showtunes!".

  2. Tom said,

    March 3, 2010 @ 10:30 am

    "Awkward" is one of the words that my Spanish students most frequently ask me how to translate, and I find it incredibly difficult to give them a good answer. It's not exactly a polysemic word — as you say, the fashionable usage is pretty straightforward and not particularly innovative. But somehow when I try to come up with what a Spanish speaker would say in the situations where students shout out "Awkward", I have an awfully hard time.

  3. Breffni said,

    March 3, 2010 @ 10:35 am

    preceding "awkward" with the interjection "wow" is similarly regular

    "Wow" as part of a negative evaluation – as opposed to an expression of neutral or positive surprise – strikes me as a relatively recent development, and, I think, specifically American. I see it frequently in LL comments, like this one: "Wow – I wouldn't have expected to see such unpleasant linguistic jingoism here in response to an inaccurate generalization!" ( Plenty more turn up using the LL search box.

    [(myl) Interesting. For the interjection wow, the OED has

    1. Chiefly Sc. a. An exclamation, variously expressing aversion, surprise or admiration, sorrow or commiseration, or mere asseveration.

    with negative evaluations going back to the 16th century, e.g.

    a1840 J. BAILLIE Poems, Fy, let us a' 16 But wow! he looks dowie and cow'd.

    and then

    2. In general use. Now chiefly expressing astonishment or admiration.

    But I wonder whether the U.S. hasn't always had the "Chiefly Sc." version, since it never would have occurred to me that wow should be avoided with negative evaluations.]

  4. Kylopod said,

    March 3, 2010 @ 10:58 am

    Maybe it's only my subjective impression, but it seems to me that interjections which have the quality of turning the speaker into an ironic observer, outside of the action, are a fairly recent trend (by recent, I mean 1980s onward). It's almost a kind of play-acting: When Sally says "awkward," she is pretending she's a member of the audience watching the conversation and commenting on it, rather than a participant.

  5. Larry Lard said,

    March 3, 2010 @ 11:23 am

    I'm trying to remember where it was that I saw a comment to the effect that: there is no awkward situation which cannot be made *more* awkward by someone pointing out how awkward it is.

  6. Mark said,

    March 3, 2010 @ 11:35 am

    From 2001:

    Brian: Whoa! Yikes! Awkward.

  7. Clarissa at Talk to the Clouds said,

    March 3, 2010 @ 11:38 am

    I was recently asked by a student to explain sort of *sung* "Awkward!" comment that's common among members of my generation (30s) down through teenagers. Like Tom, I found it difficult to characterize simply, and wound up first defining some of the more basic meanings of the word, and then acting out several situations where the "Awkward!" comment could be used by an observer or commentator. Since it seems that she hears it a lot at high school (what an awkward place!), I expect she'll get it, but…

    At any rate, I think some of my confusion definitely came from the perception that "awkward" as a description of most of the encounters I was thinking of was not at all unique to youth culture, but that at the same time, I couldn't imagine my mother saying either the singsong "Awkward!" or "Wow, awkward." ("How awkward" or "That sounds awkward," sure.)

  8. Adam Roberts said,

    March 3, 2010 @ 11:45 am

    I'm with Johnny Trash, @1; I've certainly heard the singsong 'awkward!' Although it raises an interesting ancillary question … ' a singsong voice like one might say "Showtunes!"' This also seems to me quite a recent development; makes me think (for instance) of Will and Grace (which first aired in 1998). Of course, there's no intrinsic reason why one should say "Showtunes!" in a singsong voice; except to mark that there's allegedly something camp or effiminate about liking showtunes. Is there something similarly female, or –in a man — effiminate in acknowledging social awkwardness, rather than gruffly ignoring it?

  9. Adam Roberts said,

    March 3, 2010 @ 11:46 am

    Not sure why I twice spelled 'effeminate' as 'effiminate' in that comment. Now my terrible spelling is displayed to the whole world. Aw-kward!

  10. Chris said,

    March 3, 2010 @ 11:52 am

    There is a related phenomenon which I'm quite certain is very recent that I'll call The Three "reallys" Construction. It's strictly a spoken construction, as far as I can tell, so I can't do much of a search, but it's common in sitcoms and very commonly used in casual setting amongst friends when a person is faced with a situation that is (1) surprising, (2) intractable. The three "reallys" provide a cascaded enunciation of the cline from genuine surprise to complete defeatism (i.e., the person realizes there's nothing they can do about the situation).

    really 1 = interjection like wow expressing internal surprise.
    really 2 = interrogative, actually questioning the other person wrt the situation.
    really 3 = expression of defeat (i.e., I give up).

    Something like this:

    "Wow, Mark Liberman actually reads Sally Forth. Really! Really?. Really."

  11. Mr Punch said,

    March 3, 2010 @ 11:57 am

    I think Kylopod has it right — this is a version of the ironic (some would say cynical) observer style of the '80s. I'd add that although David Letterman is the usual reference, Ronald Reagan actually laid a good deal of the groundwork.

  12. Breffni said,

    March 3, 2010 @ 12:24 pm

    I'm with Kylopod too: the performance element captures exactly my interpretation of (what I think of as) American "negative" wow. I hear/read it as an ironic performance that wraps subjective disapproval in disinterested surprise. I doubt that it has that force in (older) Scots usage, but then the whole thing might be a figment of my imagination anyway.

  13. J.H. said,

    March 3, 2010 @ 12:36 pm

    As a high schooler in a country other than the US, the concept of the 'awkward turtle' only caught on quite recently. Yet, it hasn't taken us long to come up with various other awkward animals (or other things), like the 'awkward palm tree' (hold forearms up, flop hands downward) or the 'awkward humping starfish' (latch hand onto someone's shoulder…and the rest is self-explanatory).

    The similarity between all of these is that they are never used during a truly awkward moment. When I first learned about the awkward turtle, it was a means of breaking awkward silences, but now, people have such a laissez-faire attitude towards the word 'awkward' that it's been transformed into a kind of filler word for any remotely uncomfortable moment.

  14. Sky Onosson said,

    March 3, 2010 @ 12:37 pm

    Awkward is hardly the only word used like this.


  15. majolo said,

    March 3, 2010 @ 12:49 pm

    The instance of sing-song awkward that's stuck in my head now is the Subway commercial featuring office workers with little-kid voice-overs:

  16. Kylopod said,

    March 3, 2010 @ 1:15 pm

    I should add, in case I wasn't clear, that in the comic strip it's almost as if Sally is breaking the fourth wall and addressing the audience rather than her co-worker. Yet people talk this way in real life, in two-person conversations where there are no listeners. It's almost as if they're addressing an imaginary audience.

  17. John said,

    March 3, 2010 @ 1:24 pm

    I think of "wow" as an exclamation of surprise, whether positive or negative, but how recent is the negative even in America? The classic Grammar Rock video "Interjections" uses wow to illustrate (in a very early-70s way) "excited" and the girl exclaiming it is obviously very happy as she holds up her A+ report card.

  18. Breffni said,

    March 3, 2010 @ 1:26 pm

    Kylopod, I think what I'm getting at is a version of the same effect: my interpretation of negative wow sees the speaker as adopting a third-party, disinterested perspective. That and your account of "awkward" have in common the "tacitly dissociative attitude" that relevance theorists say is the defining characteristic of irony. (Again, as a non-user of negative "wow", I don't know if I'm hearing it right.)

  19. Tyler said,

    March 3, 2010 @ 2:11 pm

    I find the awkward turtle observation interesting because while many use the gesture, few have made the connection between it and American Sign Language. The "awkward turtle" is in fact the sign used in American Sign Language to indicate an awkward moment.

  20. Benjamin Zimmer said,

    March 3, 2010 @ 2:22 pm

    I can't oblige with an Emily Dickinson cite, but I did want to mention the Buffy-esque formulation, "Awkward much?" That's one of many "ADJ much?" forms recorded by Michael Adams in his book Slayer Slang, and was used in 2001 on the Buffy spinoff Angel:

    2001 Apr 17 Angel (WB Network) “Awkward much?” [Cordelia]

  21. Joe said,

    March 3, 2010 @ 3:56 pm

    Not related to the "awkward" thread–I'm puzzled by the lolcats reference on a few levels. First of all, doesn't a lolcat have to have a caption in lolspeak (eg, "I Can Has Cheezburger")? Next, what do you call those posters like the one referenced above where it shows a photo, one or two words in large type and a more descriptive comment in smaller type? I first encountered those posters as inspirational-type maxims (usually in a business context, eg, TEAMWORK Together Everyone Achieves More) but I've seen funnier ones (like the one in this post) usualy satirizing the original, inspirational ones. And there is a variant of the satirical version of this poster that can definitely be considered a lolcat (eg, MY POKEMANS Let Me Show You Dem).

  22. Allen said,

    March 3, 2010 @ 4:06 pm

    Another awkward reference.

  23. Jim F said,

    March 3, 2010 @ 4:17 pm

    This "awkward" phenomenon strikes me as related to the use of "That's funny" to indicate when the speaker thinks that something is funny. (Rather than, say, just laughing or smiling.) Both seem to detach the speaker from the experience and seem to indicate discomfort with allowing non-verbal cues to get the message across.

  24. Coby Lubliner said,

    March 3, 2010 @ 4:25 pm

    @Tom: do you mean you've never heard anyone say ¡Qué torpe soy!?

  25. Lugubert said,

    March 3, 2010 @ 4:33 pm

    @ Joe,
    Right; I think it would rather qualify at (but still at The Cheezburger Network).

  26. Nassira Nicola said,

    March 3, 2010 @ 4:57 pm

    @Tyler – well, the first part of "awkward turtle," when it's produced in two parts, is the ASL sign AWKWARD (which you link to); the second part (which is often produced in isolation as "awkward turtle," as shown in the linked video) is the ASL sign SEA-TURTLE.

    Still, I'm surprised how many of my entering ASL students know the sign for SEA-TURTLE, and not, say, I-L-Y (which used to be the one ubiquitous sign every hearing person knew).

  27. Aviatrix said,

    March 3, 2010 @ 5:02 pm

    Yet another cheezburger network site provides an intergenerational example:

    Upon meeting my sister’s boyfriend for the first time:
    Mom: So how’s the sex.
    Sister: Wow mom. Awkward. Really really awkward.
    Mom: Oh don’t worry sweetie it’s always awkward at first, but you’ll get used to it!

  28. Spectre-7 said,

    March 3, 2010 @ 5:02 pm


    I believe the origin of the form was Despair, Inc.'s line of Demotivators, which I first encountered about 10 years ago. They were all fairly specific parodies of the classic motivational posters seen on office walls.

  29. Rowyn said,

    March 3, 2010 @ 5:26 pm

    There's also – "Spreading the Awkwardness."

  30. Ken Grabach said,

    March 3, 2010 @ 5:47 pm

    wow. Am I being awkward? Seems to me that the whole thing irony thing as a method of communicating pretty much everything from mild appreciation to neutral dismissal to downright aversion is the new phenomenon. It includes self-deprecation, as Sally demonstrates, it includes commentary from an observer as in the lolcat picture, and just about everything in normal discourse in some circles. This seems to me to be only one manifestation. I say this as description, rather than as proscription.

  31. Bloix said,

    March 3, 2010 @ 6:08 pm

    "It's almost as if they're addressing an imaginary audience."
    Lots of twenty-somethings act as if their lives were on TV.

  32. Karen said,

    March 3, 2010 @ 9:52 pm

    My observations at Cheezburger are that the cats themselves speak in lolcat, but captions describing the cats may or may not be.

  33. Dave said,

    March 3, 2010 @ 9:57 pm

    It's interesting how catchphrases are still being generated by SNL ("really", @Chris). I'm pretty sure that "awkward was partly popularized by Austin Powers.

  34. Jerry Friedman said,

    March 4, 2010 @ 1:48 pm

    Things that were ironic (bitchy chick getting ass handed to her on Finance exam) were mislabeled as awkward.


  35. Mark said,

    March 4, 2010 @ 8:02 pm

    You forget that brilliant variant of the awkward turtle, the "awkward robot," which I personally knows dates back to at least 2004.

  36. Mark said,

    March 4, 2010 @ 8:03 pm

    Apparently I don't know how to include links in my comments. Googling "awkward robot" gets you a few videos, facebook groups, and urbandictionary references for this apparently widespread conversational practice.

  37. Mark said,

    March 4, 2010 @ 8:05 pm

    Also, I should note that this is often in addition to and concurrent with, rather than in lieu of, "saying ‘awkward’ in a sing-song voice."

  38. Lane said,

    March 5, 2010 @ 2:08 pm

    Years ago, my friends and I started saying "awkwardo" at *really* awkward situations – awkward had (this was the 1990s) already seemed so overused that you didn't know what to call something really, truly, deeply awkward. (It has the Spanish stress pattern – awk-WAR-do.)

  39. Cine Cynic said,

    March 6, 2010 @ 10:19 am

    Taking the word "awkward" alone, my negligible experience tells me that the usage for such situations as you've mentioned, has increased in the last decade.

    I was reminded of a so-so movie called Mindhunters (2004) where one of the main characters habitually uses, "This is awkward." When I searched IMDB for the usage of "awkward" in memorable quotes (, I found that a vast majority of the 213 results are from the last decade. While IMDB may not possibly be treated as a sufficiently large corpus, I thought it might mean something, given the influence of movies.

  40. Scott L said,

    March 6, 2010 @ 8:40 pm

    I'm wondering if Tyler or Nassira have ever heard of the "awkward turtle" or "sea turtle" sign being used pejoratively to refer to Mexican or Central American immigrants. We used the sign in a group I was a member of a few years ago (as a quick and non-disruptive way to signal that we found a comment awkward or uncomfortable), and someone asked us to stop, saying that it was parallel to calling someone a "wetback" in spoken English.

    Was there any substance to their claim? I know next to nothing about ASL, so I certainly didn't argue with them at the time.

  41. snow black said,

    March 7, 2010 @ 7:03 pm

    I was for some reason trying to place a rather older similar use of "awkward" – without the "wow" – just the other day. Here it is, in Wilkie Collins's The Moonstone (1868); Godfrey has just had his proposal of marriage rejected:

    'Awkward!' he said between his teeth, when he looked up,
    and went on to the house–'very awkward!'

  42. Aaron Davies said,

    March 8, 2010 @ 1:37 am

    @Joe: this particular one is in the style of a demotivation poster; the main other form is an image macro (wikipedia article here, possibly more relevant encyclopedia dramatica article here). (caveat browsor, ED is reported to have obnoxious (and potentially dangerous) ads.)

  43. Army1987 said,

    March 8, 2010 @ 4:17 pm

    I had always understood "wow" not used to express admiration as being sarcastic (but then I'm not a native speaker).

  44. Ellen K. said,

    March 8, 2010 @ 5:57 pm

    I take "wow" as an indication of surprise, with tone of voice or other things said supplying the information on if it's good, bad, or neutral.

RSS feed for comments on this post