A friend and I attended a Brewers baseball game – no, not the Milwaukee Brewers – the Helena Brewers. This is minor league ball. And the stands are minor league too. My friend, in his mid-70’s, missed the ancient bleachers’ elevated first step up. There being no handrail to grab, he sprawled. As he recovered, he said: “That was awkward.” And the older woman sitting nearby said: “Getting old is awkward.”
We English speaking folk have been using this odd sounding word to describe our trips, falls, and embarrassments since the mid fourteenth century. This two syllable word – spoken all by itself – with a full range of inflection – covers a lot of life.
“Awkward” comes from Old Norse, the language spoken by the Vikings when they invaded and colonized northern and eastern England – about 875-950. As the cultures of the invaders and the settlers meshed, “awkward” was a loan word that found frequent expression. Of course. “Awkward” literally means: “in the wrong direction,” from awk – “back-handed” + the adverbial suffix that expresses direction –weard (see – to-ward, or back-ward). My friend meant to go up. Instead, he “blundered”(another Old Norse word) in the wrong direction. How awkward.
Lest we think that age has some exclusive claim on awkwardness, a recent video showed a model attempting to navigate the runway in impossibly high high heels. The strain on her ankles being far too great, she began an agonizingly awkward wobble – one foot wavering – then the other. Finally, in tandem, her bumbling ankles “collapsed” – from the Latin collabi “fall together,” from com – “together” + labi – “to fall, slip” (see lapse from Latin lapsare “to lose one’s footing”). In this case, “collapse” was exactly the right word. The Romans knew this word of theirs well – the decline and fall of their empire was in tandem – collapse from within and from without.
While we are still in the arena of awkwardness, consider this little known English word: “gawky” or “gawkish.” It means: “awkward, ungainly.” Its earliest use is in 1724, from gawk hand – “left hand.” And gawk hand may be a contraction of gaulick, that is: “gaulish hand” – from the Gauls/the French. The “Online Etymological Dictionary” comments: “This derogatory slang could have originated during some period of strained Anglo-French relations, i.e. most of recorded history.”
The French have given us their own word too – “gauche” – “tactless” – from gauche – “left” – originally, “awry,” from Middle French gauchir “turn aside, swerve,” from Old French gaucher – “trample, reel, walk clumsily.”
In a right handed world, to be left handed can be awkward, gawky, gauche. Apparently, one in eight is left handed. Losing the numbers game, lefties have been left behind and slandered linguistically. Righties are literally:
- “adroit” – from French à droit – “according (a) to the right (droit);
- “dexterous” – from Latin dexteritatem “readiness, skillfulness, prosperity,” from dexter “skillful,” also “right (hand).” The Latin suffix –ter, means “the better direction.”
Meanwhile, lefties are described as:
- “maladroit” – from French – “in the wrong direction;”
- “sinister” – from Latin – sinister“left, on the left side.” This Latin word was used in the sense of “unlucky, unfavorable.” Flights of birds seen toward the left were regarded as a sign of coming misfortune.
Dutch, Chinese, Portuguese and Russian have disparaging connotations for lefties.
“Ambidextrous” also shows the bias of language. Instead of meaning “skillful on both sides,” it literally means “right handed on both sides.” It’s like a baseball announcer saying: “After striking out three batters this inning, we can see that our left-handed pitcher is adroit!” Awkward!
The preference of language for “rightness” may partly derive from the era when people carried daggers. An open right hand showed you were not carrying a weapon. Hence, the practice of shaking hands with the right hand.
And so we come to a story from the Bible. After Moses and Joshua had died, God periodically sent military leaders to help the Israelites. One was Ehud. He was a leftie from a tribe that had an unusual predominance of lefties. The meaning of his tribe’s name – Benjamin – is literally “son” (ben) “of my right hand” (jamin). What?!
This southpaw, Ehud, answered the call to take out obese Eglon, the leader of the tyrannical Moabites. Ehud got past security with a double-edged sword about a foot and a half long, which he strapped to his right thigh under his clothing. He gave Eglon the tax money, and then asked for a private audience. Ehud told Eglon that he had a message from God for him. Alone with Eglon, 21 Ehud reached with his left hand, drew the swordfrom his right thigh and plunged it into the king’s belly. 22 Even the handle sank in after the blade, and his bowels discharged. Ehud did not pull the sword out, and the fat closed in over it (Judges 3).
Awkward! That’s in the bible?!
While Ehud made his escape, the courtiers waited. Finally, the servants came and found the doors of the upper room locked. They said, “He must be relieving himself in the inner room of the palace.” 25 They waited to the point of embarrassment, but when he did not open the doors of the room, they took a key and unlocked them. There they saw their lord fallen to the floor, dead (Judges 3). After his escape, this leftie, Ehud, gathered an army, defeated the Moabites and freed Israel.
So, what do we take away? Although our cultures and our languages may despise a minority, like lefties, God makes room for a lefty who is a genuine hero. Let’s get past our cultural and linguistic biases and partner with God. Let’s believe him.
As we do, we’ll find that the last can become the first. David, the eighth son (like a left hander – one in eight), the one out mucking the sheep pen, is chosen and his seven outstanding older brothers are passed by. God’s ways are not our ways.
Lest we think that God’s truth telling is diminished by a hero like David, in the genealogy of Jesus, the first chapter of the first Gospel, we read: David was the father of Solomon, whose mother had been Uriah’s wife. Adultery, murder – David. And this Jesus’ genealogy tells of Tamar, who, as a widow, was treated as a prostitute by her father-in-law. And here we read of Rahab, the prostitute. Let’s not forget, we are worse than we think we are. Awkward!
But, unexpectedly – shazam – out of this pile of manure comes the Lily of the Valley. This is the genealogyof Jesus the Messiah – incorruptible.
This bringer of grace and truth lives three decades. But, he was impossibly awkward for the people of that era. They, (in our place) hung him on the cross. He gave up his life on our behalf – with his left hand and his right hand affixed to that cursed cross. Still he spoke: “Father, forgive them. They know not what they do.” His resurrection shows he was impossibly awkward for the grave.
And when Christ sent the Spirit, even more surprises arise – like Paul, the Phi Beta Kappa Jew, a descendant of Benjamin, a persecutor of the church. Due to a profound Spirit initiated transformation, Paul revels in being called the Apostle to the Gentiles – those he had formerly deeply despised. Impossible? No, but, it’s like a right handed person becoming left handed and rejoicing. In Paul’s letters he refers to Gentiles 53 times – and to his beloved Israel only 24 times.Would we discover in the writings of a classical musician twice as many references to rock music as the music he initially loved? Would a Montana State University fan go to twice as many University of Montana games as MSU games? Hardly! Would a life-long Republican hang out with Democrats twice as much as did with Republicans? I, Paul, (am) the prisoner of Christ Jesus for the sake of you Gentiles (Eph. 3:1). Paul loved these people. Paul’s last recorded words in the book of Acts (28:28) are: I want you to know that God’s salvation has been sent to the Gentiles, and they will listen!”
Jesus changes everything. At that last great day – he will wipe every tear from their eyes.There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away (Revelation 21:4). And awkwardness will be no more.
Sucking out (some of) the marrow-nourishment from the bone-words with you,