meanings and history of the term ‘glass jaw’

The term glass jaw denotes:
– (in boxing) a jaw that is excessively fragile or susceptible to punches;
– (by extension) a person’s or institution’s critical point of weakness, i.e., an Achilles’ heel.

This term was included in Glossary of Boxing Slang, published in the Great Falls Tribune (Great Falls, Montana) published on Sunday 25th June 1933:

Palooka—A dub with the gloves.
Ham and Egger—A preliminary fighter.
Tanker—One who quits in fixed fights.
Lug—Blow on chin.
Bread basket—Stomach.
Dive—Drop to floor without being hurt.
Submarine blow—Low blow.
Leather pusher—A boxer.
Pug—A professional fighter.
Cauliflower Alley—Where fighters hang out.
Punch Drunk—Dizzy from blows on the head.
Slug dippy—Fighter out of his head from severe beating.
On his heels—Worn out.
Southpaw—One who fights with right arm extended.
Glass jaw—Weak jaw.
Round house—Arched blow instead of straight punch.
One-two punch—Blow with each hand in rapid succession.
Cauliflower ear—Ear disfigured by constant blows.
Squared Circle—The ring.

The American cartoonist DeBeck (William Morgan DeBeck – 1890-1942) evoked the boxing term glass jaw in his comic strip Barney Google, published in the San Francisco Examiner (San Francisco, California) of Wednesday 8th February 1933:

– Tell me – Did you accept Whacko Dumpsy’s challenge?
– Not yet, Sully – There’s a lotta talk goin’ around that you got a glass jaw – I wanna make sure you’re okay on the button before we step into sump’n..
C’mon – I got the test all ready..

'glass jaw' Barney Google 1 - San Francisco Examiner (San Francisco, California) - 8 February 1933

'glass jaw' Barney Google 2 - San Francisco Examiner (San Francisco, California) - 8 February 1933

– “How’m I doin’?” That’s what you was yellin’ –
Don’t you know you shouldn’t try to say nothin’ when you’re hangin’ by your teeth..?

'glass jaw' Barney Google 3 - San Francisco Examiner (San Francisco, California) - 8 February 1933

The earliest occurrence of glass jaw that I have found is from an article about the U.S. boxer John Arthur Johnson (1878-46), published in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch (St. Louis, Missouri) of Monday 19th September 1904—the term must have already been in current use, since the author neither put it in quotation marks nor felt the need to explain it:

Johnson is a clever boxer, without a punch. Even the worst heavyweight ever seen in a ring. “Mexican Pete” Everett went 20 rounds with him. So did little George Gardner, the ex-light heavyweight champion, and old “Hank” Griffin and “Denver Ed” Martin, with the glass jaw.

On Sunday 30th October 1904, The Sun (New York City, N.Y.) published this interesting study:

They Are Usually Possessed of a Nervous Temperament and Have Lean Features—This Weakness Often Prevents a Man From Becoming a Champion.

Pugilists with “glass” jaws are as common as baseball pitchers with “glass arms.” The whole secret of the glass jawed fighter is that he is born with a weak jaw. While many fighters can stand a lot of pounding on the vulnerable point, others will go out from the slightest jar. A number of boxers in the ring to-day would probably have been world’s champions but for this fact. Some fighters can take unlimited punishment in the stomach, which is considered the tenderest spot of a boxer’s anatomy. Joe Grim of Philadelphia is not susceptible to blows on either the jaw or the stomach. He has taken any amount of beating on these spots without ill effects. Yet he is only human and can be knocked out. His weakest point, in all probability, is on the jugular, and if he is whipped in decisive fashion it will be from a punch either on the neck or on the temple.
It is usually the very nervous fighter who has the weakest jaw. He invariably has a lean visage. At the same time he may be the most skilful boxer in the profession. There is no more scientific pugilist in the country than Joe Choynski; but the Californian has a weak jaw. He can stand plenty of gruelling on the body. But when a rival succeeds in reaching his face, Choynski becomes dazed and is in a position to be put to sleep easily. When Choynski met Joe Walcott at the Broadway A. C. several years ago he was getting along famously until Walcott landed a light blow on the Hebrew’s countenance. The blow made Choynski groggy and Walcott had no trouble in defeating him.
Kid McCoy is another fighter who has a glass jaw. A single punch in that locality will pave the way for a finishing blow. McCoy realizes this and holds his guard high. He also has a weak stomach, but would prefer a couple of jolts there than one, no matter how light, on the jaw. Jim Corbett cannot stand much pummelling on the jaw. Jim Jeffries conquered Corbett when they met at Coney Island with a left hook on the jaw. For twenty rounds the champion [was] trying to get in such a blow, and Corbett knew it, for when he left his chair to begin the twenty-first round he turned to one of his seconds and said:
“I wouldn’t mind so much one of Jeffries’s body blows, but he ever catches me on the chin it will be all day with me. And I’m going to look out for it, too, you can bet.” But Jeffries got there just the same.
“Wild Bill” Hanrahan who died a few years ago in Chicago, was one of the hardest hitters in the business for his weight. Hanrahan had a wallop that would have felled an ox. One of these smashes knocked out Marvin Hart of Louisville, who was then rated as an invincible. But as soon as some of Hanrahan’s opponents landed on his jaw, Bill went to pieces. Hanrahan was making rings around Tommy West when they fought at Coney Island, but West tumbled Hanrahan to the canvas with the lightest of taps.
Young Griffo of Australia, as scientific a boxer as the ring has ever known, has a weak jaw. That Griffo was able to avoid being put to sleep was due to his exceptional skill. After his dissipations had left Griffo’s constitution in a feeble state, the clever Antipodean was easy prey for the man who could locate his chin.
Joe Gans has a weak jaw, but none of his antagonists as yet has succeeded in finding that spot with any degree of accuracy. Steve O’Donnell of Australia, who about eight years ago was a marvel of skill in the ring, had a glass jaw. In fact this weakness was so manifest that his rivals were afraid to hit him very hard on that organ for fear of fatal results. Tommy White might have been the premier featherweight of the world but for this weak spot. White met Ben Jordan in England and was getting along swimmingly when Jordan suddenly slipped over a slight jolt on the chin and the Chicagoan bit the dust.
On the other hand there are fighters who simply revel in being prodded on the jaw. For instance, Jim Jeffries, Bob Fitzsimmons, Terry McGovern, Kid Broad, Young Corbett, Tom Sharkey, Kid Carter, “Mysterious” Billy Smith, Jack O’Brien of Philadelphia, Gus Ruhlin, Tommy Ryan, Eddie Hanlon, Jimmy Britt, Aurelia Herrera, Joe Walcott, “Battling” Nelson, Matty Matthews, Hughy McGovern, Frank Erne, Kid Lavigne, Dave Sullivan, George Dixon, Spike Sullivan and Jimmy Handler of Newark. These fighters all have hard jaws. They have square features. Fitzsimmons wins most of his contests by holding out his jaw for his opponent to hit. He knows that only a real pile driving blow on the spot will bring him down. It is an enticing bait. In aiming for the jaw a fighter often leaves an opening.
The “glass jawed” scrapper, if his weakness is not known, conveys the impression that he is faint hearted. He is subdued so quickly that a question of his gameness is raised. Often from this cause honest battles are mistaken for fakes.

In an article entitled The Moral Glass Jaw, published in The Washington Times (Washington, D.C.) of Wednesday 28th January 1914, Anthony Joseph Drexel Biddle Sr. (1874-1948), a U.S. millionaire with many interests, among which boxing:
– used glass jaw—preceded by the adjective moral—allegorically;
– gave a physiological explanation of the phenomenon:

Beware the moral glass jaw. A glass jaw is the one insurmountable obstacle to the success of a pugilist. A man may be strong as a giant and quick as a cat. He may have perfect judgment and unequaled skill, all the qualifications of a champion, but if he has a glass jaw he will be beaten by the weak and the clumsy, and his name will be a joke among tenth-raters.
So, in the battle of life a man may be a scholar and a gentleman, a model of highmindness [sic] and Christian philanthropy and still have some moral Achilles’ heel, some weakness of the flesh that he cannot conquer which will bring him in the end, despite all his virtues, to destruction and ruin.
[…] In the chin knockout it is the jar to the portion of the brain known as the medulla oblongata, communicated by the jaw, which produces unconsciousness. In all men this medulla tissue is sensitive to shock, but in most it is capable of becoming indurated by repeated blows, so that it is no longer affected by any ordinary concussion. When a man is said to have a glass jaw this tissue is either naturally abnormally sensitive or it is incapable of becoming accustomed to resisting shock. […]
[…] If you have a moral glass jaw the blows of sin will get to you and put you on the scrapheap.

A boxer’s glass jaw may be the consequence of a fracture. For example, in his column The Sportsman’s Corner, published in The Daily News (Passaic, New Jersey) of Monday 24th February 1930, Arthur G. McMahon wrote the following about a boxer named Larry Johnson:

When Jim Braddock broke the former welter champ’s jaw two years ago he made it almost impossible for him to regain any success in the ring. A glass jaw is as delicate as a piece of china and the first thump usually rings [sic] down the curtain.

Incidentally, a synonym of glass jaw is china chin, also China chin—as explained in the column So They Tell Me with Bill Soberanes, in the Petaluma Argus-Courier (Petaluma, California) of Tuesday 24th May 1960:


Irv Patterson: “I have often heard the term ‘China chin’ used in boxing. Can you tell me what it means?”
Answer: A China chin is the same as a glass jaw, and a boxer with a China chin or a glass jaw is one who can be knocked out when tapped on the jaw by a punch that couldn’t faze the ordinary prize fighter.
Many a fine boxer and puncher have had to give up promising ring careers, because they couldn’t take a solid punch on the jaw without going down for the 10 count.

The earliest instance of china chin that I have found is from the account of a fight between two boxers named Joe White and Jack McAuliffe, published in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle (Brooklyn, New York City, N.Y.) of Saturday 8th December 1923:

From start to finish Joe rushed his opponent in an effort to connect with McAuliffe’s well-known china chin.

The earliest use that I have found of glass jaw in the figurative sense of a vulnerable point is from the Los Angeles Times (Los Angeles, California) of Sunday 11th January 1931:

Arthur Hammerstein1 announces that as a producer he has given up the ghost. His latest extravaganza, “Ballyhoo,” having failed to attract pleasure seekers in paying quantities, is turned over to his employees, from the stellar W. C. Fields2 to the earthly stage mechanics, to do with it as they see fit. Mr. Hammerstein estimates his recent losses as a purveyor of light Broadway amusement to be more than $1,000,000. A mere drop, according to other investors in American securities, in an empty bucket.
Mr. Hammerstein, though a son of the indomitable Oscar3, is too sensitive, for Broadway is rough and tumble. When, later in the season he ventures again to appear in the amusement arena, it is to be hoped he will protect his glass jaw with a fortifying opera.

1 Arthur Hammerstein (1872-1955) was an American songwriter, dramatist, playwright and theatre manager.
2 W. C. Fields (born William Claude Dukenfield – 1880–1946) was an American comedian.
3 Arthur Hammerstein’s father, Oscar Hammerstein (1846-1919) was a German-born U.S. businessman, theatre impresario and composer.

Apparently, the term glass jaw has come to be also used in baseball. For example, the following is from the Brooklyn Daily Eagle (Brooklyn, New York City, N.Y.) of Friday 14th July 1933—the White Sox are a baseball team based in Chicago, Illinois:

Washington was taking it on a glass jaw from the White Sox.

Likewise, The Brooklyn Citizen (Brooklyn, New York City, N.Y.) of Thursday 10th May 1934 said this about the Brooklyn Dodgers and their manager, Casey Stengel:

If Stengel had a strong pitching squad the Dodgers would not be taking so many wallops on their glass jaw.

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