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shameless pleading

Whopperjawed

A bite to remember.

Dear Word Detective:  While traveling through Central Illinois I heard someone use the word “whomperjawed,” as in “Don’t get all whomperjawed on me.” Just curious if there was an origin or popular use at one time for the word. — Brian.

Central Illinois, eh? I was having a bit of trouble picturing what that might be like, since the only bit of that state I’ve experienced is Chicago, so I looked it up (on Wikipedia, so I can only hope the internet isn’t pulling my leg). According to the Wiki-elves, Central Illinois is mostly flat prairie dotted with small towns where the locals grow corn and soybeans and watermelons and gather weekly to worship a variety of pagan gods in bizarre and frightening rituals. Just kidding about that last part. I’m sure it’s just like here in Central Ohio, and everybody worships football (with bizarre and frightening rituals). Incidentally, did you know that the word “rural” comes from the Latin “ruralis,” meaning “of the countryside,” based on “rus,” meaning “country,” which also gave us “rustic”? Now you do.

It’s unclear from the remark you report exactly what the speaker meant by “whomperjawed,” but the two leading candidates would probably be “Don’t start acting aggressive towards me” and “Don’t start acting weird or uncertain; don’t waver.”

If you were to look up “whomperjawed” in a typical dictionary, you’d almost certainly draw a blank. Part of the problem is that the word exists in an unusual and frustrating number of forms, from “wopper-jawed” to “wapperjawed” to even “lopperjawed,” all both with and without hyphens. Even the few dictionaries that do list the word seem uncertain on its meaning; the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) cites a 19th century collection of East Anglia (England) dialect as defining “wapper-jaws” as meaning “a wry mouth; a warped jaw,” and a dictionary from 1891 defined it as meaning “a projecting under-jaw.” Taken to mean a jutting jaw and a combative posture, it’s possible that “whopper-jawed” could be used to mean “pugnacious.” This seems to be the sense Mark Twain used in an 1863 letter: “He is a long-legged, bull-headed, whopper-jawed, constructionary monomaniac.”

The more common sense of the word, however, seems to be “out of alignment, askew,” as one might describe something poorly-constructed or dilapidated (“Bill took three months to finish those bookcases, and within a week they were all whopperjawed”). Applied to a person, assuming nothing notable about the person’s jaw, the most likely meaning would be that the subject was acting “weird” or “squirrelly.”

As you’d expect with such an elusive word, the origin of “whopperjawed” is a bit hazy, but the key appears to lie in what is evidently the original form of the term, “wapper-jawed.” This was pretty clearly a development of a much older (16th century) term, “wapper-eyed,” meaning someone who either blinked a lot or whose eyes rolled indicating dizziness.

Wapper-eyed,” in turn, rested on the obsolete English dialect verb “wapper,” meaning “to blink” or “to move unsteadily” (“Wapper-eyed, goggle-eyed, having full rolling Eyes; or looking like one scared; or squinting like a Person overtaken with Liquor,” 1746). The verb “to wapper” may be related to the Dutch “wapperen,” meaning “to swing, oscillate, or waver,” and may also be related to our modern English verb “to wave.”

“Whopperjawed” and its many variants are used today, to the extent that they are, almost always in reference to things that are askew or don’t fit together as they should, and, as far as I can tell, only rarely applied to people, which makes your experience in Central Illinois linguistically intriguing. Perhaps next time you pass by, if it’s not too much trouble, you could ask what the heck they meant by that.

11 comments to Whopperjawed

  • Growing up in Oregon in the 50s and 60s, I recall “all whopperjawed” being used, along with thingamajiggy and such, as one of those inexact terms used for things that probably have a name, but you don’t know or can’t remember what it is. Usually it referred to something being decidedly lopsided in some hard to describe way, but I vaguely recall it also being used to refer to the jaws of a plumber’s wrench when they couldn’t line up properly because of obstructions.

  • h.s. gudnason

    I learned the word during a Gothic language class from someone who grew up in central Indiana. No idea how the subject arose.

  • RJ

    I grew up in southwestern Ohio, and the word was used all the time in my family to mean that something was out-of alignment, warped, uneven, off-kilter, lopsided, off-center, or otherwise not positioned (or built) “correctly,” relative to an established norm. This was especially true, as was mentioned in the Word Detective’s response above, when the defect resulted in two component pieces not fitting together properly, as in carpentry. But I never heard it used to describe people, only things.

  • RJ

    And by the way, we pronounced it “whopperjawed.” (No ‘m’)

  • Rebecca

    In the deep southeastern US it is most decidedly pronounced with an ‘m’, as “whomperjawed” or even “whumperjawed”. The meaning is akin to catawampus (or caddywhompus or cattywhumpus) and I’ve always heard it used in the same way. Maybe that’s where the ‘m’ sound comes in, from the tie with catawampus?

  • Chris Cook

    From Texas…parents used to say it all the time. I thought it was a white country thing. It means its crooked.

  • DY

    (From SC Kansas, from someone who comes originally from NW Missouri)I stuck a bunch of candy “Whoppers” in my jaw and asked a coworker, “What’s this?”. Then told her I was “Whopperjawed”. In response I got a blank, “what the heck are talking about” stare. She’d never heard of the term. I explained that it meant askew or out of line. Then I started searching online to make sure I wasn’t using it incorrectly. That’s how I wound up here.

  • Jenny

    When I was groing up my grand parents lived in a small southern town called clarkton, where they used words like whopperjawed. When I asked them they explained to ke that it ment crooked or, if you were referring to a person, queer. So I have no idea what the person you heard meant but there are several variations and definitions of the word whopperjawed so I reckon she meant don’t get all queer (or crooked) on me. :)

  • Theresa

    I grew up in South Central PA near Lancaster and we use this word. In fact, I used it today and someone from the NYC metro area had no idea what it meant. We pronounced it ‘whopperjawed’ meaning askew. ‘The thermos lid got all whopperjawed and now I cannot get it off.’

    I have also heard it used in reference to people such as ‘don’t go getting all whopperjawed on me’ meaning don’t become askew or off balance.

    Interesting that it seems to be most common in places where there are Amish – PA, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois. Although I think I heard it reading Mark Twain’s books and letters. I loved the word as a onomatopoeia that conveys it’s meaning by sounding crooked.

  • Connie

    I grew up east central Indiana heard this term frequently from my mother whopperjawed, and cattiwhapus, from her use I thought it meant out of alignment, however cattiwhappus could mean diagonal when she used the term.

  • Charles

    I found myself the object of ridicule when I used the word “whoppy-jawed” in the presence of my teenaged daughter. I have to assume I picked it up from some of my very rural white relatives in Georgia. As I use it, it means “knocked out of alignment” — the “whop” suggests an impact. My co-worker from Oklahoma says he learned it as “whompy-jawed.”

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