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Q From Ian McAloon in the UK; Patricia P Miller asked a related question: I have heard an American friend of mine use the phrase kitty corner to describe things that are diagonally opposed, as for example: ‘The drugstore is kitty corner to the ice-cream parlor’. Have you heard this phrase before and do you have any clue as to its origin?

A It’s certainly a very odd-looking phrase. It has lots of variant forms, such as catercorner, kitty-cornered, cata-cornered, and cater-cornered, a sure sign that it puzzles users.

The first part comes from the French word quatre, four. It’s actually quite an old expression that first appeared in English as the name for the four in dice, soon Anglicised to cater. The standard placement of the four dots at the corners of a square almost certainly introduced the idea of diagonals. From this came a verb cater, to place something diagonally opposite another or to move diagonally, which can be found in the sixteenth century. Some English dialects had it as an adverb in compounds such as caterways or caterwise. By the early years of the nineteenth century it was beginning to be recorded in the USA in the compound form of cater-cornered. It had by then lost any link with the French word; people invented spellings in attempts to make sense of it, often thinking it had something to do with cats, which is why we have forms like kitty-corner.

That wonderful word catawampus is often used in the central and southern parts of the USA to mean the same thing, though it can also refer to something that’s askew, crooked, out of shape, or out of joint. The first part of it comes from the same source, though the second half is mysterious. It has been suggested its source is the Scots dialect verb wampish, to brandish, flourish or wave about. However, catawampus can also refer to something ferocious, impressive or remarkable. It may be this is an entirely separate sense, deriving from catamount for the mountain lion or cougar.

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Page created 11 Mar 2000