Monday, October 15, 2007


Doug from Traverse City asked about the origin of the word caterwaul.

This word has two components. The first part, cater-, obviously contains the word cat. While there seems to be some uncertainty, the German word kater, a tomcat, probably had some influence. The word shows up in a colorful idiom: einen kater haben, to have a hangover.

The second component is more traceable. It comes from the verb wrawen, to wail or howl. The word was used in reference to cats in heat, and it may simply have been onomatopoeia, an imitation of the sound itself. Other language groupings such as Danish, Swedish, Norwegian, and Swiss had similar words referring to cats in heat, and the word also applied to stallions in heat and to a rowdy, poorly behaved man. No mention of heat there.

So the earliest use of the word was to describe the noise made by cats at rutting time. Later, it came to mean any hideous noise or a quarrel in feline fashion. It also meant lascivious or lecherous.

No connection, but there are a few more curious words, some of them obsolete, that convey the meaning to wail or howl.

• ejulation: wailing, lamentation.
• ululation: a howl or wail; a cry of lamentation.
• vagitus: a cry or wail, especially that of a new-born child.
• Then there’s a word that sounds like it comes from Saturday Night Live: wailster, a female wailer. It’s the Wailster!

SIDEBAR: Caterwaul, the band

SIDEBAR: Trail of Dead--Caterwaul

SIDEBAR: Cat sound

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