The American-English slang phrase awkward turtle denotes a gesture consisting in placing one hand on top of the other and wiggling the thumbs, made to reduce embarrassment.
Jessica Leber, then a master’s candidate at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, wrote this very interesting, exhaustive article, titled When embarrassment rears its head, call on ‘awkward turtle’, and published in the Chicago Tribune (Chicago, Illinois) of 29th April 2008:
New York—Twenty-year-old Aaron Cleveland, from Quinlan, Texas, told an inappropriate joke, and it bombed. Ryan Medler, 18, from St. Louis, was in the middle of a make-out session when the girl’s father walked in. And Jenny Kim, 20, from Commack, N.Y., was gossiping with her friends when their conversation’s subject wandered within earshot.
Such cringe-worthy gaffes—those moments when you ache to sink into the floor or slink from the room—are every teen’s worst nightmare. Tense silence and uncomfortable, or deriding, laughter are sure to follow, or so one would think.
Not for these three young adults who, in the midst of their embarrassment, invoked a new mascot. They placed one hand on top of the other (palms down, fingers together; thumbs stuck out) and wiggled their thumbs in a synchronized circle. They did the “awkward turtle.”
“It’s lighthearted,” explained Kim. “You are calling out the awkward situation and, at the same time, you can kind of laugh about it.”
Within the last three years, the awkward turtle has become popular among the high school and college-age crowd, which has embraced the type of nerdy hero-worship epitomized by the success of the 2004 cult movie “Napoleon Dynamite.” 1 Facebook now has more than 500 groups of “awkward turtle” devotees, the largest with more than 27,000 members.
“This group is also for anyone who believes awkwardness defines their life, or anyone who finds awkward situations entertaining,” reads part of the group’s mantra.
Urbandictionary.com first documented the phenomenon in 2005. 2 For two years, Mathew Novak, 18, from Sugar Land, Texas, has sold awkward turtle merchandise online. In all corners of the U.S., and even the world, everyone’s doing the awkward turtle.
And it can come in handy. Someone who is suddenly embarrassed can flash it to defuse the situation, or a friend can employ it to bail out a tongue-tied friend. It can also be a subtle signal to acknowledge unease from afar. “It’s like an inside joke that so many people are a part of,” said Graham Beckwith, a senior at Ohio State University.
But how it started is anyone’s guess. Rumors suggest that it originated in the sign language term for “turtle” or “sea turtle.” Not true, says Donna E. Gustina, an American Sign Language expert at the National Technical Institute for the Deaf in Rochester, N.Y. “The hand signal that you see used for the expression ‘awkward turtle’ is the same as the sign in ASL for platypus.” Deaf students at the institute did not seem to know of the “awkward turtle.”
Online, many are trying to stake their own claim, asserting that this ubiquitous, viral slang evolved independently in their hometown. Medler says he first learned the gesture in summer camp when he was 6 or 7. It looked awkward so, when he was older, he adopted it. “I personally felt that I was the creator until I realized everyone did it—only after I made an ass of myself,” he admits.
One linguist had another theory. “It’s a reference to the turtle and the hare,” said Robert Beard, a former professor of Russian and linguistics and creator of an online dictionary company.
As far as slang goes, the awkward turtle is a bit unusual, said Connie Eble, an English professor who has authored a book about college slang. “It’s acknowledging an emotion or a feeling that’s not at the polar end. For the most part, slang does not manage to make fine distinctions.”
The awkward turtle may reflect trends in the increasingly crowded high schools across the country. “A single popular crowd is becoming a more irrelevant thing,” said University of Virginia sociologist Murray Milner. “What you tend to get is these differentiated subcultures of punks, hippies, skaters, brains, jocks, etc.” Cultural diversity, in general, is more widely accepted, he added.
“It’s very possible that put-downs have become less common, and this kind of need to paper over things has become more important,” Milner said.
Said Eble, “This may actually be a kinder, gentler nation, who knows?”
A few in-the-know parents and teachers have picked up on the trend. For kids, though, that can’t be good. “It’s awkward. It’s kind of like when your dad starts trying to use all the lingo and saying, ‘Yo, what’s up dawg,’ said Medler, who says he uses the gesture at least five times a day.
Almost as quickly as the awkward turtle began, dozens of variations have emerged. Now, there are the awkward starfish, turkey and the turtle-on-its-back, to name just a few.
Russell Burke, a conservation biologist who studies turtles, has mixed feelings about the emblematic label. “The fact that they basically live their lives in a box means that life is very awkward, but in water, where most of my turtles spend their time, they are incredibly graceful,” he said.
Still, he pointed out, “Most of the time, I would say they are socially inept.”
Photograph illustrating When embarrassment rears its head, call on ‘awkward turtle’, by Jessica Leber—Chicago Tribune (Chicago, Illinois)—29th April 2008:
1 Napoleon Dynamite (2004) is a U.S. comedy film directed by Jared Hess (born 1979), starring Jon Heder (born 1977) in the title role. The plot centres around a listless and alienated teenager, who decides to help his new friend win the class presidency in their small western high school, while he must deal with his bizarre family life back home.
2 This probably refers to the following definition by ‘Final Attempt’, published on 6th September 2005 in Urban Dictionary:
The animal mascot of the awkward moment.
When you’re in an awkward moment, place your hands on top of each other, and spin your thumbs forward. Thus creating the creature know [sic] as awkward turtle.