• untoward •
Pronunciation: ên-tow-êrd • Hear it!
Part of Speech: Adjective
Meaning: 1. Not showing a disposition or inclination to do something, as untoward for math. 2. Difficult to manage or manipulate, as an untoward lock of hair. 3. Wrong, bad, adverse, unpropitious, as an untoward storm. 4. Awkward, clumsy, unseemly, as an untoward remark.
Notes: The Oxford English Dictionary offers ten different definitions for this word accompanied by 69 examples: surely it behooves us to make sure this word does not fall by the wayside. It even comes fully equipped with an adverb, untowardly, and a noun, untowardness.
In Play: I have ordered the meanings by their age rather than by the order of their importance. We should begin with the fourth sense of today's word, which is its semantic status today: "I could ignore Frieda Gogh checking her watch repeatedly during tonight's lecture, but I though it untoward of her to shake it several times." But remember the word still means "difficult to manage": "I've agreed to keep Gwendolyn's rather untoward cat while she is out of the country."
Word History: Today's Good Word comprises the negative prefix un- + the adverb toward. The question now is: how did these two pieces of the compound come to give it the meaning it has today? (1) Untoward began its life as the opposite of the adjective toward, which once meant "willing, being up to it". (2) Someone who is disinclined to do what he or she is told, is "difficult to manage". (3) Someone who is difficult to manage tends to be perceived by those who are trying to manage them as "wrong, bad, adverse". (4) The last step in the process that brings us to the meaning we have today is 'semantic softening', the softening of the previous meaning of the word. (I have been a bit untoward in neglecting to recognize the good work of the editors of this series. They have been a very reliable lot, prereading and commenting on all the Good Words every day for many, many years. Paul Ogden, Luciano Eduardo de Oliveira, and Mary Jane Stoneburg, I offer you my warmest gratitude. So should we all.)