• caterwaul •
kæd-êr-wawl • Hear it!
Part of Speech: Verb, intransitive
Meaning: 1. (Of cats) To bellow as cats do when they mate or fight. 2. To make loud, discordant, irritating sounds. 3. To have a loud, boisterous argument.
Notes: Today's word has been in the English language since the 14th century (Chaucer used it), yet remains borderline slang. The reason is that it sounds a little too funny, and its meaning, as the examples below indicate, is often quite offensive. Things that caterwaul are caterwaulers, and their distinguishing activity is caterwauling, a word that may be used as either a noun or an adjective.
In Play: As mentioned above, we use this word most often as an insult: "I don't think I want to go to Carrie Oakey's recital tonight; I hear enough of her caterwauling when she practices in the apartment upstairs." However, caterwauling does occur among humans and other animals, so there are times when it is unavoidable: "The Bickertons were caterwauling in the hall so loudly this morning, I had to raise the volume on the TV three times."
Word History: Today's Good Word is clearly of Germanic origin: cater is closely related to German Kater "tomcat". Either Old English inherited the word as German did or borrowed it from German. Waul would seem to be related to wail, but may have been borrowed from the Vikings during one of their 'visits' to the English coastline, which began in the 9th century. It was originally wrawl, similar to words we find in the Scandinavian languages, such as vræle "to bellow, bawl" in Danish and vråla "to roar, bellow" in Swedish. Kater melted away before the end of the Old English period, but waul is still out there, lurking in the shadows, waiting for anyone interested in adding it to their vocabulary.
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