Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Word Nerds' (Catty-)Corner

In a comments thread on a previous post in which I had used the expression 'catty-corner' to mean 'diagonally across from', the lovely and talented Ms Zoe from Crazybrave queried this expression, saying it was unfamiliar to her, though 'kitty-corner' was not. So I have been doing some research.

I had always assumed in some dim way that 'catty-corner' to mean 'on the diagonally opposite corner' was related to the adorable word 'cattywumpus', which I learned from Sue Grafton's Kinsey Millhone, who uses it somewhere to refer to a road that is neither parallel nor at right angles to (ie cattywumpus to) (or possibly from) the highway.

And so it has proved to be. If you check the Shorter OED, the two-volume one, you will see that the fourth definition of the word 'cater', derived from the French 'quatre' or 'four', is a transitive verb meaning 'to set rhomboidally; to cut, go, etc, diagonally. So Ca´ter adv. dial., diagonally. Ca´ter-cornered, a.'

Loftily, the Shorter OED fails to include 'catty-corner', but there is plenty of cyberspace attestation to the derivation of 'catty-corner' (and 'cattywumpus' as well) as an evolution of a corruption of 'cater-cornered'. That link indicates that the lovely and talented Ms Zoe and I were both correct, which is my very favourite mediation outcome.

'Cattywumpus' has been developed in my own personal idiolect to mean 'ickily askew' in either a literal or a metaphorical sense.

My researches accidentally uncovered another truly lovely word, 'catoptromancy', meaning 'divination by use of a mirror'. How lovely to find the name for something I do every day: I look in the mirror, see yet another line or spot, and divine that I had better get cracking sharpish on the ant/grasshopper thing.

I also found a 1673 usage of 'cat-witted' to mean 'small-minded, obstinate and spiteful'.



Zoe said...

An excellent outcome! And what a lovely post (not just because you said such nice things about me, either). Cattywumpus is new for me, and so is cat-witted. I love a new word.

Chris Boyd said...

The less-than-lofty (but utterly adorable) Australian Oxford Dictionary has kitty-cornered and catty-cornered, redirecting readers to cater-cornered.

The AOD says it's a US word, but comes from British dialect (and the obsolete usage of cater, for 'the four on dice') and ultimately from French. Presumably cater is how the Poms pronounced quatre! (God, I can see this piss-pronunciation is gonna catch on again!) (And what impact will it have on the career of Suzi Quatro?!)

The AOD doesn't have cattywumpus. Merriam-Webster, however, has cattywampus with an 'a'.

Pavlov's Cat said...

Yes, there's a lot of wampus about, with or without a hyphen. I first saw it in the Grafton novel as cattywumpus, all one word and spelt with a U, so cattywumpus it must, for me, remain.

shula said...

a truly excellent word, that I have never heard of in my life.

I plan to use it first thing tomorrow and at least 6 times by sundown.

Ampersand Duck said...

I didn't want to read that last bit of your post out loud, in case my kitties were offended. I often do read them posts of catty interest, to broaden their minds.

Zoe said...

I used it today!

tigtog said...

Etymology and Kinsey Malhone in one post! [swoons]

I had forgotten all about the lovely word idiolect too.