While the words cringy and cringeworthy existed back before the 2000s they have taken on new dimensions in the matured internet era. Historically, cringing has referred to the involuntary hunching of the shoulders, tensing of every muscle, "make it stop" feeling that we associate with fingernails on a chalkboard. We cringe at certain sounds or in sympathetic pain when somebody walks face first into a pole but since the introduction of Youtube, Reddit, and social media it's come to refer to a kind of second hand embarrassment.
While "cringy" behaviors or situations cover a huge range of possible interpretations and nailing down an exact definition for internet pseudo-slang is nearly impossible the one common through line of the things I've heard described as cringy would be embarrassing situations where somebody lacks enough self-awareness to be embarrassed. When it happens in real life we tend to glance away, laugh nervously, or just try and change the subject. But when we see a video of some kid having a meltdown because his parents canceled his WOW subscription, a sovereign citizen trying to argue their way out of an arrest, or anything to do with Chris-Chan all we can do is watch. And morbid fascination and schadenfreude being what they are cringe is slowly morphing into a noun describing this kind of content rather than a verb. Subreddits like r/cringe and r/cringepics have over a million subscribers each and provide a constant supply of pitiful events and people for our viewing pleasure.
The odd thing about cringe is at the edges it's so subjective. An action can be cringy when seen as sincere and hilarious when ironic with the only difference being interpretation. Should we be laughing at that? Was it a joke? By that same measure context is everything, a professor who employs sesquipedalian verbiage comes off a lot less pretentious than a teenager doing the same. What's perfectly normal in one subculture is proof of their utter lack of self-awareness to the rest of society and vice versa. I sometimes find myself cringing at the label cringy being applied over broadly. That last sentence made me wince.
IRON NODER: WE'LL RUST WHEN WE'RE DEAD