Q From Michael Owens, USA: A co-worker is driving me nuts. He insists there is a word, whopper-jawed, and it means askew. I have heard of the term, but when I looked in a dictionary, found nothing. We’ve looked in about 14 or 15 dictionaries (on line and traditional books), yet nothing! Am I nuts? Is this a regional term? Slang?
A You are not going crazy, and it’s not slang, though it is an informal US term that’s not that widely known and certainly doesn’t appear in many reference works. One problem in finding it is that it often goes around under an alias, appearing as wapper-jawed, whomper-jawed, whompey-jawed, whoppy-jawed or whompsey-jawed, and also seems to be related to the even rarer lopper-jawed, which the Dictionary of American Regional English records from 1916.
But neither of the two dictionaries that list it agree with your friend’s meaning, one giving no clear definition, the other — which records it as wapperjawed — saying it means having a projecting lower jaw. So I turned to the experts on the American Dialect Society mailing list, who confirmed that the term is known and still used in the US on occasion and does indeed usually mean askew. Several subscribers to the World Wide Words newsletter have since reported that the word was familiar to them from decades ago in reference to something out of alignment or ill-made. It seems to be much less common than it once was.
Its origin seems to be in the English dialect verb wapper, meaning to blink the eyes, or perhaps to move tremulously, which may come from the Dutch wapperen, to swing, oscillate, or waver. A more common form at one time was wapper-eyed, which variously meant to have sore eyes, or eyes that continually shifted from side to side, or were unsteady or blinked a lot.
There’s an example from the East Anglian dialect dated 1825 in the Oxford English Dictionary that suggests it once meant a wry mouth or a warped jaw. A similar idea is in a sentence recorded from 1848: “Fancy an heir that a father had seen born well featured and fair, turning suddenly ... squint-eyed, hair-lipped, wapper-jawed” (hair here may be a misprint for hare). Taking these with all the other early examples, it seems that wapper meant something that was deformed or distorted, for which askew is as good a word as any. Quite how the more specific term wapper-jawed took on the broader sense of wapper is unknown, as there are very few examples of its use in print at any time.
It’s easy to see that one of these could over time have evolved into the sense of having a projecting jaw. That sense is first recorded — in the Century Dictionary — in 1891, but it has also been found in a letter written by Mark Twain in December 1863: “He is a long-legged, bull-headed, whopper-jawed, constructionary monomaniac”, where it seems to have the meaning of somebody pugnacious, who sticks his jaw out spoiling for a fight. No doubt it was helped along by a mental association with whopper, something especially large (whose origin is not known, but which seems to be linked with wap or whop, meaning to strike a heavy blow). The lopper-jawed spelling seems to be a corruption.
Altogether, an interesting phrase, one that has survived in the spoken language for generations without ever attracting much attention from dictionary makers.