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shameless pleading






That ain’t right.

Dear Word Detective:  Mom (born 1932) was from Central New York (Otsego and Cayuga Counties) and used an expression whenever something was crooked or misaligned — an example being a skirt whose zipper in the back meandered to the side from normal wear. I don’t know how to spell this, but she pronounced it “squee jaw.” Anyone recognize this? — LadyMayflower.

Anyone? Bueller?… Bueller?… Bueller? Oh wait, it’s just me here. I used to have an imaginary assistant named Edith Freedle, but when readers began writing to complain that I was mistreating her (dispatching her to sit at dull book festivals in my place, for instance), I had to let her go. It was sad, but she lives in Florida now, in one of those humongous cookie-cutter developments where people all ride around in golf carts. She married a retired chiropodist and sends me funny videos of talking cats. Seems pretty happy for someone living in hell.

Gosh, second paragraph already? Better get to work. “Squeejaw” (apparently it’s one word) turns out to be a remarkably uncommon word, at least these days. It’s not listed in any mainstream dictionary I own, and even the American Dialect Society’s mailing list, my go-to guide to weird folk sayings, has apparently never noticed it. It does crop up in several “user-generated” online dictionaries, defined as meaning “crooked” or “cockeyed,” pretty much as your mother used it. But these sites, not surprisingly, don’t offer any hint of where the word came from or how it came to mean “crooked.”

Fortunately, there is a publication, the Dictionary of American Regional English (DARE), whose sole mission is to catalog and trace just this sort of obscure term, and after a bit of digging in DARE, I hit pay dirt. I’m very lucky I persisted, because DARE is a work in progress, and the most recent volume only covers up to “Sk,” somewhat shy of the “Sq” of ‘squeejaw.” But poking around in the “Sk” pages, I found, lo and behold, “squeejaw.”

“Squeejaw,” it turns out, is one of many variants of the term “skew-jaw” or “skewjawed,” “skew” meaning “crooked, misshapen, diagonal, distorted, rickety or wrong” applied to a thing, or “confused, peculiar or awkward” applied to a person. The particular form “squeejawed” turned up in 1950 in an answer to a regional language survey question posed to Wisconsin residents (“When a collar or other clothing works itself up out of place you say it’s …”), so it’s definitely the same term your mother used. According to DARE, the geographic distribution of “skew,” “squee” and other variants (“screw,” “skee,” etc.) includes, apart from the upper Midwest, central and upstate New York.

The “skew” that apparently underlies the first part of “squeejaw” seems to be the common English adjective meaning “at a slant, out of alignment,” more commonly seen in the form “askew.” The “jaw” part is a bit more mysterious. A similar term, “whopperjawed,” has  roots in the dialects of England and means both someone with a crooked or prominent jaw and something that is poorly built and crooked. So the “jaw” of “squeejaw” may have originally literally referred to a person’s misshapen jaw. But variants of “squeejaw,” “skewjaw,” etc., substitute “jay,” “gaw” or “haw” for “jaw,” so there’s a good chance that “jaw” doesn’t really mean much of anything. In Iowa, for instance, a player who makes a flubbed, wobbly shot in a game of marbles is said to be “shooting screw jay.” With so many variations on this theme out there “in the wild,” it’s probably impossible to pin down which came first, but at least we know that your mother’s “squeejaw” came from a very large and popular family.

16 comments to Squeejaw

  • Victoria Ayers

    IN north central Pennsylvania it’s “skweehawed” and applies to things like car doors that fall out of alignment and thereafter creak and groan when moved.

  • I recognize the term whopperjawed. I grew up in Oregon in the ’50s & ’60, but if I picked it up from my parents, they were from northern Wisconsin.

  • Laurie Sutherland

    “If the points are off and it’s kind of skeejaw, why you know they really don’t care that much about it.” This term Mom used might have been used by quilters, and her grandmother (Pennsylvania Dutch) was one all of her life. Skeejaw is used on this webpage of the Quilt Alliance:

  • Nik Berry

    The OED has ‘skewgee’ with the same meaning.

  • Erin W.

    My mother uses “squeejawed”–she grew up in the 1950s-’60s in Colorado and, as the kid of missionaries, in Japan. I’ll have to ask where she picked it up!

  • Ryan

    Central Michigan area here. A few members of my mothers family (from the same area) have used this one in the past. Typically as “squeejawed”

  • thomas jay a long

    My grandmother is 69 now. She is where i heard the word squeejaw for the first time. She first heard it from another kid when she was growing up in san francisco.

  • There is apparently a bunch to identify about this. I believe you made certain nice points in features also.

  • MacKenzie

    My mom and grandma are also from central NY and both use this term. It is also on urban dictionary as “squeehawed.”

  • Linda Crowe

    In Oregon I grew up in the 50’s using this saying and still do, occasionally. The word “squeejawed” to me means not straight or “off” in some way. My family originated in England and spent time in Indiana, Iowa, South Dakota and Wyoming.

  • Chris

    My dad used to say something was squeehawed if it was crooked or all messed up. My mom claimed that she first heard him use the term when he returned from serving in the Coast Guard during WWII.

  • Alice Kane

    My Delaware County neighbor/ born around 1922, taught me several expressions (she went “down street” instead of downtown, for example), but she said that things were “squeehonkey” when they were mixed up or out of order.

  • Mei

    Squee haw is crooked, not square, not sitting right where I’m from (southern ontario, cottage country). I was just thinking about its origins and googled it. Might have first nations roots?

  • Philip

    My English partner , born in 1939, calls it “ skew whiff “. Same meaning. I heard it as squee-jawed from my father who came down from the Midwest (Illinois), via Ohio and central New York.

  • Nancy

    I am an over 70 senior from Michigan who uses the term skewjaw. The spelling is mine as I have never seen the word in print. The only person I have heard it from is my mother also born in MI. It means crooked or messed up.

  • Daniel Maybury

    We of Cortland and Preble NY learned that from our father Harold’s pronunciation as sounding like “skewjoyed” but, alas, we never saw it written.

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