Awkward and Untoward

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Both these adjectives are in frequent use on the web:

awkward: about 163,000,000 hits in a Google search
untoward: about 5,290,000.

Language, as the media illustrates daily, can be used to illuminate or obscure ideas.

The purpose of adjectives is to make writing more vivid. Used judiciously, they can clarify ideas being presented. The vastness of the English vocabulary provides thousands of adjectives that do just that. Awkward and untoward are not among them.

When the same word is used to convey multiple meanings, the word becomes virtually meaningless.

Awkward, for example, can be interpreted to mean any of the following: uncomfortable, embarrassing, unnatural, clumsy, inexperienced, unapproachable, immature, socially inept, deliberately uncooperative, badly designed, dangerous.

The following examples illustrate these varied meanings.

It could be shaping up to be a rather awkward Thanksgiving in Hyannisport.

He probably knew how awkward it would be, so he opted to run away to get married.

If you try, it will always feel awkward, like it somehow doesn’t come off right.

A diminutive Scot, he was rather awkward in movement and not remotely athletic.

I can only think of one person who was a little cold and maybe slightly awkward.

We’ll be awkward teenagers and still jumping into your lap for a long, long time.

Philippe was considered aloof and awkward, with the charisma of a civil servant.

It doesn’t help that I’m extremely picky, cynical, and kinda awkward in general.

The space is difficult, with its awkward division into three disconnected areas.

At the beginning of WWII Rijeka immediately found itself in an awkward position. [Rijeka was annexed by the Nazis.]

It may be my imagination, but untoward seems to have gained popularity during the past few years. Like awkward, toward is used with multiple meanings.

The Oxford American Writer’s Thesaurus gives these synonyms for untoward:inconvenient, unlucky, unexpected, unforeseen, surprising, unusual; unwelcome, unfavorable, adverse, unfortunate, infelicitous, improper, unseemly, perverse.

In many news articles, untoward works as a place-holder for more specific adjectives like dishonest, criminal, suspicious, corrupt, illegal, seditious, and insensitive.

There remains no credible evidence at all that anything untoward occurred in the 2020 election.

“You don’t want an opportunity for individuals to have personal information that they can use for identity theft or other untoward activities.”

I suppose I should send a second [sympathy] card, but I feel like it seems untoward for some reason.

Consider the variety of meanings that untoward may represent in these examples:

Monroe had long been concerned about untoward foreign influence on the presidency.

She twice hired private investigators to follow him, but they found nothing untoward.
[suspicious? incriminating?]

There’s nothing untoward about requesting a raise even after only a short time on the job.
[wrong? impertinent? impolitic?]

There is something untoward about demanding to be the leader, no matter what the cost.
[arrogant? egotistical?]

On occasion, serious untoward outcomes have been linked to herb consumption.
[harmful? deadly?]

Jess told her nothing happened, nothing untoward and they were just mates mucking around.
[illegal? sexual?]

They also stress the need for players to report any untoward activity.
[drug use? sexual abuse? betting? bullying?]

They found bare tunnels and no evidence that the area had been used for anything untoward.
[smuggling? human trafficking?]

There are times when writers wish to understate or obscure a detail. For such occasions, awkward and untoward are valid choices.

When the intention is to inform, more specific adjectives are available.

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