I saw this in the book I’m reading at the moment (‘Life After Life’ by Kate Atkinson – well worth a read). The author used it to describe the look on a violent husband’s face just before he got wife-beaty (that’s not cheery, sorry). It’s a mainly Scottish adjective which means misshapen or crooked, as well as obstinate or recalcitrant. It’s generally used in a negative way (as in the wife beater), but can also be used for someone who’s admirably determined to do something.

Etymology-wise, it comes from the Old English word ‘thrawen’ which means to twist or turn. This meaning survived in Scottish as the verb ‘thraw’. In 1881 Robert Louis Stephenson published a short story in Scots called ‘Thrawn Janet’ about a preacher who hires a local crone (funny how there’s no male equivalent of a crone) as a housekeeper. Suspected of being in league with the devil (probably just because she’s old and female), the preacher has her renounce Satan. The next day she appears with a ‘thrawn’ (for which read twisted) neck, as if she’s been hanged. Here’s our word in action:

‘For there was Janet … wi’ her neck thrawn, and her heid on ae side, like a body that has been hangit, and a girn on her face like an unstreakit corp.’

(If you want to find out what happens next, the whole story’s online here.)

‘Thrawn’ doesn’t turn up much these days, although (if you’ll just allow me to geek out for a moment), there is a Grand Admiral Thrawn in a series of novels in the Star Wars extended universe, before the latest films made them no longer canon. He’s got blue skin and is a bit of a bastard. This probably doesn’t have anything to do with the Scots word as it’s short for Mitth’raw’nuruodo (obvs), but it’s a nice coincidence nonetheless.