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.

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