• catawampus •
Part of Speech: Adjective
Meaning: 1. Awry, askew, crooked, antigoglin (for you New Englanders). 2. Out of kilter, out of whack. 3. A fierce imaginary creature thought to inhabit forests.
Notes: Today we have another of those US concoctions with vague meanings and even vaguer spellings: cattywampus, kattywampus, catywampus, and cattywumpus have all been used. The Oxford English Dictionary even suggests the rather Frenchfied ending -ous on this word: catawampous.
In Play: The basic meaning of this word is "crooked, awry", as in: "Mr. Gildersleeve, your tie is catawampus; let me straighten it for you." However, when things go awry, we may also have cause to use this word: "William and Marian's romance was moving along swimmingly until Marian announced that, when they married, she wanted a house without a kitchen. After that, things went catawampus."
Word History: Since the meaning of today's word is so close to catercornered, it is probably the case that cata- is a pronunciation variant of that word. In fact, catercornered is itself often pronounced catacornered. Cater is an English adjustment of French quatre "four" and began its life referring to the dots on the "four" side of a die (plural dice). It was quickly picked up by catercap, a four-cornered hat usually worn with a corner in front and another in back, rather than squarely across the face. Something like this lent itself to a shift in meaning to "diagonal, not straight". Along the way to catercornered several variations were used, including caterways, caterwise, catercross, and catercheckered. (Things would really be catawampus if we forgot to thank Robert Fitzgerald for suggesting today's Good Word.)
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