Untoward is one of those words that makes you stumble over your tongue trying to pronounce it. It looks like it should be pronounced [un-too-WARD.] But for some reason the last two apparent syllables are slurred together to make one, [TAWRD.] Maybe I’ve just been mis-pronouncing toward all my life. Maybe it’s just one syllable. It sounds sloppy to me to say it that way.
But in any case, untoward is one of those words that is common in use, but not terribly well known in terms of its meaning. Scholars, academics, and journalists probably have no problem with its meaning, but the average person on the street probably would never think about using it in a sentence under most circumstances.
It’s a word that means that something is, perhaps “off color,” embarrassingly inappropriate, or just plain not a good idea to say or do. Taking a phone call in the middle of a religious service, for instance, or talking during an orchestral concert would be easily recognizable as untoward activity. But the list is a long one, including such things as:
- Blowing your nose at the table in a restaurant.
- Texting while driving.
- Changing a baby on picnic table in a park.
- Criticizing the United States publicly when traveling abroad.
- Using obscene language in a meeting.
- Wearing white shoes after Labor Day. (I threw that in for fun!)
The point is that untoward words or actions are intentional gestures (verbal or physical) which are not appropriate for the circumstances. Sometimes they are accidental and are forgivable. But when someone repeatedly makes people uncomfortable by actions or words which are out of place, it is just plain rude.
The are conventions which people subscribe to which may, or may not, require acceptance. The white shoes after Labor Day, for instance, is a ridiculously archaic rule. But it doesn’t take rocket science to know when not to use crude language in public. It doesn’t require a Master’s Degree to know when racial slurs or ethnic jokes are not appropriate (ever?) You don’t have to be a fashionista to know when your clothing is too revealing for public. You don’t need to carry a resource book on child-rearing to know when to let your little children wander in a park without supervision. Common sense is not hard to acquire.
Untoward behavior is not always quite as simple as the examples I’ve identified, however. Sometimes there are subtle nuances which qualify. When traveling in foreign countries it is well to know the customs of that culture which are scorned or outright inappropriate. In some countries it would be anathema for a woman to enter a religious site without her head covered. In others it is a religious and social blunder for a male stranger to speak directly to a woman in public. Knowing the correct name of a country (Burma or Myanmar, for instance) avoids a blunder. Shoes on or shoes off is something one should research before entering a home in another country. Wearing a yarmulke at a Jewish funeral is polite and does not indicate adherence to the faith. (I blundered on this one myself as a teen and continue to be embarrassed about it.)
People are, for the most part, forgiving if ignorance is the cause of an untoward moment. But intentionally inappropriate acts or words are another thing.
Illustration Credit: Victory