Dr. Goodword’s Language Blog

Getting Things Uncattywampus

One of my favorite words in English is catercornered “diagonally” if for no other reason than when I use it, most people aren’t sure of what I mean. The reason for this is that few people actually pronounce it correctly. Most people pronounce this word cattycornered.

The process of change surrounding this word is striking, though. The process is called “folk etymology” and occurs because people don’t like unfamiliar words tend to ‘normalize’ them in speech, to replace them with familiar ones even if their meaning is inconsistent. Cornered is a good English word but what is this cater?

Well, this part of the word started out as French quatre “four” which at least suggested the box with the appropriate number of corners. But once reduced to cater it takes on a sound so similar to cat that the temptation arises to replace it with cat.

The problem is, it has two syllables, so how about catty. Must be cattycornered. But once you bring cats into the picture, why not make the word even cuter by changing catty, an adjective that really doesn’t fit to kitty, making it kittycornered?

Even more striking, however, is a related word used widely down South: catty-wampus “askew, out of alignment”. This one is reverse folk etymology: the familiar word corner was replaced by a totally “un-English” word, wampus. No one has any idea where wampus comes from.

Leave a Reply