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Catawampus

Posted by John Lawson on July 29, 2000

In Reply to: Catawampus posted by Bruce Kahl on February 29, 2000

: The first element of the word, "cata," is probably related to "cater," also found in the related word "catercorner" (or, as many folks know it, "cattycorner" or "kittycorner"). "Cater" in these words is an Anglicization of the French "quatre," or "four," and "catercornered" originally just meant "four-cornered." To specify that something is "catercorner across" from something else is to stress the diagonal axis of an imaginary box, as opposed to saying "directly across" or just "across." Both "catercorner" and "catawampus" are native American colloquialisms dating back to the 1880's or earlier.

: The "wampus" part of "catawampus" is a real puzzler. It may have come from the Scots word "wampish," meaning "to wriggle or twist," which would certainly seem to fit with "catawampus" meaning "askew" or "crooked." But "wampus" also may have been a completely nonsensical element, made up by someone because it sounded funny..

: Two other aspects of "catawampus" bear mentioning. First, "catawampus" can also mean "a fierce imaginary animal," or simply "fierce." The theory is that this sense of "catawampus" is entirely separate in origin from the "askew" sense, and comes from "catamount," which is an old American folk term for a mountain lion (cat-a-mount, get it?).

: Second, both "catawampus" and "catercorner" are often seen and heard with the first element spelled "catty" or "kitty." Linguists call this process "folk etymology" -- people replacing an unfamiliar element in a word or phrase ("cater") with a familiar one ("catty" or "kitty").