Dear Word Detective: The definition of “lopsided” is fairly well known as “being out of balance,” but I can find almost nothing about the origin. Could the origin have anything to do with “lopping” branches off one side of a tree or bush which would result in an imbalance? This is not a question of earth shaking importance, just curiosity. — Silvanus Newton.
Oh goody, a day off from saving the world from misplaced modifiers and split infinitives. I’m only partly joking. You’d be amazed how many people write to me with complaints about other people’s grammar, sincerely convinced that their pet social ill (drug abuse, tattoos, baggy trousers, et al.) can be traced to what they perceive as, for instance, the widespread misuse of the word “hopefully.” I wish they were right, but they’re not, so for the most part I avoid grammar questions. Life is too short to spend it arguing with cranks.
“Lopsided” is an interesting word. In current usage it means, as defined by the American Heritage Dictionary, “heavier, larger, or higher on one side than on the other” or “sagging or leaning to one side” (“An odd, lop-sided, one-eyed kind of wooden building,” Charles Dickens, 1842). In a figurative sense, it means “characterized by the domination of one competitor over another” (“The … article … is very lop-sided and unfair,” 1868).
When “lopsided” first appeared in print in the early 18th century (in the spelling “lapsided”), it was specifically a nautical term, used to describe a ship that was, as the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) puts it, “disproportionately heavy on one side; unevenly balanced,” which is not something you want to see in a ship (“You will certainly have the Misfortune of a lapsided Ship,” 1711).
Obviously, the key to decoding “lopsided” lies in pinning down the meaning of the “lop” part. Unfortunately, this turns out to be trickier than one would think, because, as the OED helpfully illustrates, there are no less than eight separate “lop” nouns and four “lop” verbs in English. Fortunately, most of them can be ignored (“lop” as a very old word for a spider, for instance), leaving us with two main senses of “lop” as a verb.
The older “lop,” dating back at least to the 15th century, originally meant “to cut off or trim the branches of a tree,” with the extended sense of “cut off or reduce by cutting” just about anything else appearing by the 16th century. The origin of this “lop” is unknown.
While “lopping off” part of something would indeed tend to make it “lopsided,” the “lop” in “lopsided” is the other “lop,” which appeared late in the 16th century meaning “to hang loosely or limply; to droop.” This is also the “lop” found in “lop-eared rabbit” and similar terms. So the logic of “lopsided” is that not that one side has been chopped off, but that one side droops or leans in relation to the other.
The origin of this “lop” is uncertain as well, but it may be onomatopoeic in origin, intended to convey the feeling of something slipping down and drooping loosely. It may also be related to the older noun “lap,” originally meaning “part of a garment that hangs down or might be folded over.” This “lap” eventually gave us verbs such as “overlap” as well as the “lap” formed when a human being is seated.