Get that thing away from me.

Dear Word Detective:  My wife and I were having a discussion during which we both used the word “untoward” to describe unwanted or disagreeable results of some action. It occurred to me that this is a very odd word.  Does it have anything to do with the common “toward” as in an “untoward” result being something that I move away from (un-toward) because it is undesirable?  That sort of makes sense, but seems kind of goofy for an etymology. Is that really how the word came to be?  Some on-line references give “untowardly” and “untowardness” as related words, neither of which I’ve ever heard, and both of which sound even goofier than their parent. — Rich.

By gumbo, you’re right.  “Untoward” is a very odd word.  And the longer I look at it, the odder it gets.  Of course, reading or speaking any word over and over again can make the  word seem odd and meaningless.  There’s actually a term for this phenomenon: “semantic satiation.”  You can try it yourself by simply picking a word, even “dog” or “cat,” and repeating it aloud.  After thirty seconds or so, the word will seem completely disconnected from Fido or Fluffy.  Psychologists used to assume this effect was due to simple cognitive fatigue, but neuroscientists have discovered that hearing or saying a word causes specific neural pathways in the brain to activate, and repetition actually provokes a desensitizing “inhibition” effect on these neural reactions (much as your third slice of pie never tastes as good as the first, I suppose).

In any case, “untoward” may be an odd little word, but it’s also a very interesting one.  The first element of “untoward” is, of course, our helpful little friend the prefix “un,” meaning “none” or “not.”  The meat of “untoward” is the word “toward,” which has its own story.    We inherited “toward” from the Old English “toweard,” which was a combination of “to” and “weard,” which came from a prehistoric Germanic root meaning “to turn,” and which we know today as a suffix used to mean “in the direction of,” as in “homeward” and “backward.”

We usually use “toward” as a preposition, describing position (“He kept his back toward me”), actual motion (“We drove toward home”), or figurative progress (“I have twelve dollars toward the mortgage payment”).  As an adjective, however, “toward” has a number of now rarely-used meanings, among them, describing people, “willing to learn” and “compliant” (“Miss hath hitherto been very tractable and toward,” 1713) and, of things, “favorable” and “propitious.”  The general sense of this “toward” is “making progress, moving forward toward a goal.”

It was these rosy adverbial senses of “toward” that “untoward” popped up to counter in the 16th century.  Its original meaning was “not showing an inclination or aptitude for something” (“The Captains were yet not skilled in managing their Men, and the Men were untoward to be commanded,” 1665).  “Untoward” was also used to mean “difficult to manage, unruly and perverse,” as well as “awkward,” “unlucky” and “ungraceful.”  Eventually, all these senses also produced “untoward” meaning “unseemly or improper” (“They came to a very wicked man’s house, where they had very untoward entertainment,” 1658).  Today we use “untoward” to mean “unruly,” “unlucky,” “not favorable” and “improper.”  The forms “untowardly” (unbecoming or improper) and “untowardness” or “untowardliness” (the quality of being “untoward” in its various senses) are rarely seen today but not much weirder than “untoward” itself.

Incidentally, “toward” is the more popular form in the US, while in Britain you’re more likely to encounter “towards.”  There is no semantic difference between the forms, and both are equally proper.  “Untoward,” however, has no “s” form.

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