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shameless pleading






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.

30 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.”

  • Ohio northeast and southwest; it is used to describe misalignment.

  • My husband used “whopper-jawed” last night to describe one of the screens he just finished and has to do over, because it is misaligned. We did not use this word in the inner city neighborhood in Detroit where I grew up. My parents, who grew up in NYC, never used this word, either. My husband is from rural Indiana, near several Amish communities. The head of the construction crew he worked on in high school used the word often.

  • Lili Kissinger

    I grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area and never heard this term until I came to Indiana. I thought it was another one of those colorful, bucolic terms that only people like my farmer in-laws used. Oddly, my father was originally from downstate Illinois but never used those terms. Since his father was the owner of a small-town newspaper, I assume the family learned to use more formal language from an early age. Having grown up to be a college-level writing instructor, I have spent many hours editing these interesting words from student papers.

  • Joel Rosen

    Oppressed was a slang term used to describe a faulty gear on the M61 Vulcan Machine Gun in 1949 by a General Electric engineer Edgar Rosen. The gear solved the jamming of the weapon leading to the production of a devastating weapons still used today
    It was given to E. Rosen upon his retirement from G E in 1960 and I have it

  • Alison Camp

    Growing up in Oregon, my family used ‘whopperjawed’ (meaning crooked or ill-fitting) all the time, often to blank stares from other people. I have defined it many times to friends and acquaintances. It is so interesting to read this thread, as my father was born and raised in Indiana. He appears to have been the importer of this term to my hometown in Oregon.

  • Adam C.

    I grew up in the Chicago suburbs, with a mom who grew up in Indiana. We used whopperjawed (no “m”) to mean askew/crooked/or broken in some way implying a mismatch between two sides. e.g., a stuck zipper might be “whopperjawed”.

  • Angela

    I learned this word from my mother. Since she grew up in Ohio, West Virginia, Central Illinois and Southern Indiana, I wasn’t sure how to pin it down to a location. I also assumed it was a country thing. However, a few years ago, I met another person who uses it; she is from Chicago. Both pronounce it the same: whopperjawed. It is used to describe something misaligned, crooked, bent, etc. We never use it directly to describe people, unless they’re visibly disheveled, in which case I would more likely say their clothes are all whopperjawed.

  • I used the “Whopperjawed” this morning to a friend in describing my jaw and my garage door, both of which are out of alignment. She had never heard the term before even though she is widely traveled. I am from rural Ohio where proper alignment is frequently an issue in farm machinery, barn carpentry and such.

  • Nancy Owen-Hawkins

    I grew up in the Columbus, Ohio area and currently live in the Dayton, Ohio area. The term “whopperjawed” was as familiar to me as a child as it is now as an adult. To me it has always meant “crooked.”

  • Mary Ann

    Don’t forget Iowa. My mother-in-law, whose family lived in a small farming town in central Iowa might have brought “whopperjawed” to southern California in 1944. It didn’t catch on. Even now, coastal folks still don’t know what you’re talking about when the word is used, but on added reflection, can guess. A great word.

  • Teresa

    Grew up in Northern Idaho but had family that came across Canada from Nova Scotia through Michigan and into Idaho. They were Scottish originally and I assumed that a bunch of colloquial terms my family used came from that heritage, but maybe this was picked up en route. We always pronounced it “wappyjawed” and as others have said, it meant crooked or misaligned.

  • OperationAmericanJesus

    To this Texan who was born and raised in Oklahoma, just the sound of the word “whomperjawed” conveys to me the same meaning as “gobsmacked,” where both words describe the facial reaction triggered universally throughout humanity and even documented in our fluffier primate cousins; a reaction that by its very name illustrates a dropped and lolling jaw accompanied by stunned silence, as what happens when we’ve been witness to that which shocks and awes.

  • Kasandra Lovell

    I grew up in southeastern Oklahoma. We said “whomperjawed” with the m….I thought maybe this word was just an Oklahoma word. :)

  • Karen Grubb

    I am familiar with the term whopperjawed or varied spelling. In n. IL it means something is out of allignment.

  • Erin

    I’m from Central Illinois and it is whopperjawed. It means crooked or out of line, out of place.

  • Suellen Lowry

    Today I mentioned to a friend that a crooked window screen was “keejawed.” And she looked perplexed and said she’d never heard the word. I heard it all the time growing up in rural Washington (in an area where there were several people also from rural Missouri). I’ve never heard the words “whopperjawed” or “whomperjawed.” But “keejawed” was common and people easily understand it as meaning an object out of alignment in some way. (Not sure how to spell “keejawed” because I never saw it written.) Thanks!

  • L Stark

    Grew up in western Maryland and heard this word frequently when I was growing up. There are a lot of Amish is these areas of Appalachia as well.

  • Jennifer

    So funny to read these. I grew up in southern Indiana and my mom used to say jay whoppered when things were messed up, crocked, out of alignment. IE: Fix your shirt, it’s all jay whoppered. I find it funny that she probably heard jaw whoppered and turned it into the word jay, unless she heard if from someone else that way. I wish I knew if she picked it up from my father or Indiana people because she originally was from Arizona, although born in Illinois, so could have been her parents using it. Unfortunately everyone is deceased now so I can’t ask. I don’t say it often but when I do, people look at me funny and say what? I have never heard of jaw whopper or whomper before. However, someone mentioned keejawed and I have heard that word before as well. Interesting!!

  • Sue Jesse

    My Grandma was from Woodsfield, Ohio and she used the word often . She sewed, crocheted, and made all kinds of things, and whenever the sides did not match or if looked all crooked, she would say, “It’s all ‘Wapper jawed'”.

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