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.

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