Catty corner

Posted by ESC on April 25, 2000

In Reply to: Term posted by bobbi frey on April 25, 2000

: catty corner

Cater-cornered - diagonal; placed diagonally. A cater-cornered walk crosses the park. ("The World Book Dictionary," World Book Inc., Chicago, 1991.)

"cater-corner/cater-cornered/catawampus/cattywampus - The correct spelling of this term is either 'cater-corner' or 'cater-cornered,' though two variant forms, kitty-corner and katty-corner, are often heard in our various regional dialects. Actually the word 'cater' comes from the French 'quatre' and thus the term originally meant 'four-cornered.' But by a process known to language students as 'folk etymology,' the ordinary users of the term thought they detected an analogy to the ordinary domestic feline. Hence 'cater' soon became 'catty' and eventually 'kitty.'

The variations on this phrase are too many to list, but our favorite has long been 'catawampus' or 'cattywampus,' a dialect term heard throughout the South, from the Carolinas to Texas. You'll often hear the expression: 'He walked cattywampus across the street,' and down in Tennessee a college president of mathematics was once heard to say: 'You might call a rhombus a catawampus square.'

Still another sense of 'catawampus' and 'catty wampus' was common in some sections of the antebellum South. It meant goblin, sprite or, sometimes, fearsome beast. Slaveowners were known to warn slaves they thought might be planning to run away that 'catawampus cats' were lurking in wait for them. They sometimes also made fearsome noises in the night, which they claimed were the bloodthirsty roars of the catawampus cats.'" (The Morris Dictionary of Word and Phrase Origins by William and Mary Morris, HarperCollins, New York, 1977, 1988.)