If you know me, you know I love words. Specifically, I love learning about the origins of words. I also love words that have character. Words that just make you smile all by themselves, without needing any context at all.
Cattywampus is one of those words. Can't you just hear the Southern twang of someone's Mama? You just know she's discovered her living room all littered with kids' toys and sports equipment. Or she's trying to help her daughter put her hair up in a do, and everything just keeps going wrong.
Cattywampus is a word you can savour. Go ahead, roll it around in your mouth. Doesn't it feel rich?
The first part, “catty,” may come from an obsolete word that means “diagonal.” It could be related to “catty-corner,” which comes from the Middle English “cater-corner.” Cater- in this expression further derives from the French quatre, meaning “four.”
Douglas Harper, of the Online Etymology Dictionary, tells us the second part of cattywampus could be from a Scottish word, “wampish,” meaning to wriggle, twist or swerve about.
The coolest thing about cattywampus is that it's very possibly an invented word. Harper mentions that the current adjectival form appeared in the 1940s, when it was simply used as an intensive. It had no specific meaning, though the first part of the word may have been intended to sound Greek. Victorian era Brits were very taken with Classical Antiquity, and would have loved the idea of creating a new word that sounded as though it had ancient origins!
Harper continues, saying cattywampus was originally used in British lampoons of American English; it didn’t come into its current usage after 1860. I had to wonder if this wasn’t the result of the Americans reclaiming the word for themselves. What a triumph to give the word a proper meaning, and defeat the Brits who were poking fun at them by laughing at themselves!
Adding Colour to Conversation and Prose
Whatever the origin of cattywampus, this is a word worth tucking away for just the right moment. You never know when it might come in handy! Whether it be in your writing, or just to add colour to a casual conversation, I'm sure it will impress.
So next time something is all askew and out of order, remember that it's cattywampus. Pull out that fine colloquialism, and see how many eyebrows you can raise!
Note: This article was reworked from an original work published by the author in November 2013 on Bubblews