Saturday, June 30, 2012

Catawampus



Dr. Russ LeBlanc from Lake Leelanau asked about the word catawampus. It’s a term that some of his patients use when they come to him for an adjustment.

We know that it’s a 19th century nonsense word, but not only is the origin mysterious, the meaning is, too. On the one hand, it was supposed to be a fierce imaginary beast or animal capable of ripping you to shreds. On the other hand, it meant askew or out of alignment, the meaning currently in vogue.

The first half of the word is related to cattycorner or kittycorner, which has nothing to do with felines. It means diagonal, and it’s based on the French word quatre, four, which came into English as cater.  Picture a rectangle, which has four straight sides. If you are scrunched in one of the angles, the one across from you is kittycorner, cattycorner, or catercorner to you.

If the rectangle loses its perfect foursquare shape and begins to lean or sag, it is catawampus (cattywampus). As you can see, the spelling is all over the landscape.

The second half, wampus, has never been pinned down. At the beginning of the 20th century, it was American slang for an objectionable, bad-tempered, or loutish person. Many linguists think that it’s simply a nonsense word. But some point to the Scottish wampish, meaning to wriggle or twist. That strikes me as a stretch, but you never know.


Available from McFarland & Co.: Word Parts Dictionary, 2nd edition
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