November 18, 2019

"Catty corner"? "It's 'kitty-corner' and it will never not be 'kitty-corner' #TeamKitty."

Says Rex Parker, railing about today's NYT crossword. I wasn't so sure. Why does the diagonal path across an intersection have anything to do with felines? Is it like "as the crow flies"? Cats don't use the crosswalks? But what makes the corner catty? I mean, if the right term is "catty corner," it seems to say that the corner diagonally across from another corner is somehow cat-like. But if it's "kitty corner," it seems to mean that it's the corner where a kitty is located.

But consider the possibility that this term was never about cats or kitties. It was about the French word "quatre," which means 4, and "quatre" was also sometimes spelled "catre" — in French — and it became "cater" in English.

The four spots on dice, or four symbols on cards, can be seen as making an X, and it's suspected that this is how cater came to develop the extended senses of "diagonal" or "diagonally." English made it into a verb meaning "to place, move, or cut (across) diagonally," as in "cater the pieces on the board," but that never grew beyond some dialectal use. Also largely destined to flourish in dialects were a number of compound words that used cater to mean "diagonal" or "askew": such as catabias and catawampus. Catercornered (and later catercorner) caught on more broadly.

Eventually the dice and cards were forgotten and that first syllable settled very cat-like into a sunny spot in the lexicon and spread itself out: catty-corner and kitty-corner (and their -ed variants) were the inevitable outcome.
That's from a Merriam-Webster article. I'd tried to look up "catty-corner" and "kitty-corner" in my language reference of choice, the OED. I got nothing But let me try "catercornered." Ah! Yes: "cater-cornered... Also catacornered, catercorner, catty-cornered, etc." It's "U.S. and dialect" and the oldest usage is "catty-cornered":
1838 J. C. Neal Charcoal Sketches 196 One of that class..who, when compelled to share their bed with another, lie in that engrossing posture called ‘catty-cornered’.
There are many examples in the OED, and the only one that begins with a "k" is kittenless:
1843 ‘R. Carlton’ New Purchase I. xxvii. 261 With directions how..to secure, by two strings diagonally fastened, or as he better understood it—‘katterkorner'd-like’.
John Steinbeck used "catty-cornered" 3 times in "Cannery Row":  "If you walk catty-cornered across the grass-grown lot" and "Lee Chongs's grocery was on its catty-corner right and Dora's Bear Flag Restaurant was on its catty-corner left."

Considering that Rex Parker is trashing today's puzzle and insists that only "kitty-corner" is right, I've got to rule in favor of the NYT.

ADDED: I don't know about "catabias" and "catawampus." "Catabias" isn't in the OED, but "catawampus" is and it's a "humorous formation, the origin of which is lost: the first part of the word was perhaps suggested by catamount." The "cat" in "catamount" isn't about "cater" and the number 4. It really is a cat, a "cat o' the mountain" — a panther. "Catawampus" is "a fierce imaginary animal" and "catawampous," the adjective, means "Fierce, unsparing, destructive" or "askew, awry."

83 comments:

J. Farmer said...

We always said catty-cornered.

traditionalguy said...

A catty corner fight.

Howard said...

It depends on the distance between the corners. Under 5-meters is kitty corner, 5-meters and above, catty corner.

chickelit said...

I grew up using "kitty-corner," "bubbler," and "pop." I haven't used any of that regional dialect since leaving WI 35 years ago.

Danno said...

I have always heard kitty-corner, up here with the Scandihoovians.

Leave it to Ann to do some OED research and share it with us.

gilbar said...

i ALWAYS thought Catty Corner

Danno said...

Blogger Howard said...It depends on the distance between the corners. Under 5-meters is kitty corner, 5-meters and above, catty corner.

I don't think I have ever seen an intersection of less than 5 meters.

gilbar said...

i'm not sure Which is bothering me more
That (once again) i'm agreeing with J Farmer?
Or (for the 1st time, ever) I smiled at one of Howard's entries

sinz52 said...

I was curious, so I looked it up.
It doesn't come from cats.

"Catty-corner, kitty-corner, and cater-cornered all derive from the Middle English catre-corner, literally meaning four-cornered. All three forms are used throughout the English-speaking world. They usually mean positioned diagonally across a four-way intersection, but they can work in other contexts relating to one thing being diagonal from another.

"While most dictionaries recommend cater-cornered, kitty-corner and catty-corner are more common in actual usage. The past-participial forms—i.e., kitty-cornered and catty-cornered—might be more grammatically correct, but the uninflected forms are more common.

https://grammarist.com/usage/catty-corner-kitty-corner/

LordSomber said...

One would think that someone who's a crossword buff as much a Mr. Parker (and therefore a wordnik) would know that one could debate regional idioms forever and be neither right nor wrong. Why bother?

Plus, the Monday NYT puzzle is a joke anyway.

sinz52 said...

The Middle English word "catre" is obviously related to the French word "quatre" and the Spanish word "quatro," meaning "four."

In this case, catre corner means four-cornered.

Ken B said...

I distinctly remember hearing catter corner as a wee bairn. Probably with one T as in Ann s examples but a short a.

Phidippus said...

"Catawampus" wins the contest as my new word for today. I will try to use it often. It sounds like something that should be a noun (perhaps an animal of some kind).

Speaking of regional dialects, in the early '70s I heard "pop" for soda, "sack" for paper bag, and "submarine" for hoagie, in southern Illinois.

Bob Boyd said...

Insisting on kitty is immature.

Bob Boyd said...

I've heard people say kittywampus and cattywampus.

Left Bank of the Charles said...

I’m with Rex Parker, but is he really insisting only kitty corner is right? Catty corner is a Southernism. #TeamKitty

Bob Boyd said...

Sometimes creek rhymes with stick. It depends on which creek you're talking about. Like around here, they call Deer Creek "Deer Creek, but they call Beaver Creek "Beaver Crick".

So maybe it depends on which intersection you're cutting across.

Francisco D said...

i ALWAYS thought Catty Corner.

You must have been thinking of The View.

gilbar said...

Phidippus said...
Speaking of regional dialects, in the early '70s I heard "pop" for soda, "sack" for paper bag, and "submarine" for hoagie, in southern Illinois.


Homer Simpson said...
I want to shake off the dust of this one-horse town. I want to explore the world. I want to watch TV in a different time zone. I want to visit strange, exotic malls. I'm sick of eating hoagies! I want a grinder, a sub, a foot-long hero!

gilbar said...

Bob Boyd said... It depends on which creek you're talking about.

Which allows Me to mention one of my favorite creeks of all time!
French Lick Creek, Indiana

I think can All Agree on the pronunciation?

Rick.T. said...

"Kitty-corner" in Indiana (by way of Arkansas).

"Coke" was generic. Maybe also "soda." Pop sounds a bit prissy still to my ears.

Subs weren't a thing for us in the 60's/70's.

It's a "creek" unless you're up one and then it's a "crick."

Char Char Binks said...

#TeamKitty 4-EVER!

Rocketeer said...

It's a "creek" unless you're up one and then it's a "crick."

Or unless it's too small, in which case it may be a "branch," or a "run."

Bob Boyd said...

Kitty corner and catty corner. Not to be confused with Pussy Corner

Skylark said...

Where I grew up the term “kitty corner” was the common expression. I may have heard “catty corner” once or twice though, but I always assumed it was a little attempt at humor. I was probably wrong.

Growing up in a “pop” area and being beaten down as a deplorable upstater for not saying “soda” it was quite nice to go to England and hear it called “pop."

Rocketeer said...

"Catawampus" wins the contest as my new word for today. I will try to use it often. It sounds like something that should be a noun (perhaps an animal of some kind).

You're really gonna love sigogglin.

Skylark said...

The 2¢ deposit for the 16 oz. pop bottle X 3 bought you a 6¢ Creamsicle. So they will always be “pop bottles” to me.

Phidippus said...

Rocketeer: You have made my day, brother.

rcocean said...

catty corner - its just so wrong. Kitty-corner sounds much better, that's why it won out. Say them both. Its obvious. If peeps start using catty corner, i'm going to start saying kittywauling.

DKWalser said...

@ Bob Boyd: Sometimes creek rhymes with stick. It depends on which creek you're talking about. Like around here, they call Deer Creek "Deer Creek, but they call Beaver Creek "Beaver Crick".

Where you're at, Bob, how do they say, "American Fork" and "Spanish Fork"?

rcocean said...

cats only use cat-walks not cross-walks.

rcocean said...

I went to Yosemite
I went to the Grand Canyon.

Not: I went to the Yosemite.
Not: I went to Grand Canyon.

Discuss.

Mr. Majestyk said...

Kitty corner vs. catty corner? Pop vs. soda vs. Coke? When faced with these grave choices, I always ask myself: What would Pierre Delecto do (or, in this case, say)?

tcrosse said...

When I was working on a house-framing crew, the carpenters used cattywampus to describe something that was out of true. OTOH I worked for a PhD who spoke of cats-ass-to-strophe, final e silent.

Leslie Graves said...

I strongly believe that it is kitty-corner.

There's a newish piece of jargon going around: The four corners jargon.

The jargon-y use of it I have seen on an accelerating, garnerish basis in the last few months seems to be a metaphorization from this.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Four_corners_(law)

But...could have something to do with kitty-corner's origins?

Bob Boyd said...

how do they say, "American Fork" and "Spanish Fork"?

They don't talk like that around here if they don't want to get slapped.

Christy said...

Co-cola was generic in East Tennessee. Both kitty and catty corner are used and a sack was a poke.

I play a find-the-hidden-object game online that was for sure not created by an American team. Some of the objects were called by obscure or literally translated names. Over a couple of years they have changed mostly to more common American usage and it has been fun to notice. Still, pictures set in Japan use Japanese terms, China and Turkey likewise. The game caters to the richest group on the planet, but gives gentle lessons in other cultures.

alanc709 said...

That surprised me, since most obscure (to us) phrases like "The devil to pay and no pitch hot" comes from the sail age Royal Navy.

Susan said...

Here, Kitty-corner has always meant on the diagonal. Catty-wampus meant something was askew.

They have never been interchangeable terms in my neck of the woods.

Quaestor said...

To me catty-corner — and all versions of that spelling — has implied the diagonal rather than the adjacent. Given that isn't it possible that the term derives from contra-corner?

Skylark said...

Where I grew up it was “crick” in the generic, e.g. wading in the crick, and “creek” when in a proper name, such as South Creek. Don’t ask me why. It made sense at the time. Could have been a kids thing just in our group. We didn’t have TV and the internet regularizing evrything.

MadisonMan said...

Cattywampus is a word that Nigel Hayes (or maybe it was Dekker) used at a famous press conference.

I've never heard catty-corner -- always kitty-corner for me -- or kittywampus -- always cattywampus.

Yancey Ward said...

Hillbillies like me always said "catty-cornered". In fact, this post is the first time I can ever remember seeing the phrase "kitty-corner/ed".

Rt1Rebel said...

See also: Puss in the corner (children's game)

rhhardin said...

There's also antidiagonally, lower left to upper right.

Curious George said...

Another vote for kitty-corner.

Yancey Ward said...

You wouldn't want to corner a lion.

Bob Boyd said...

You wouldn't want to corner a lion.

Or a cougar.

0_0 said...

Cater cornered.

Everything else is a corruption of that.

Yancey Ward said...

The proper way to corner a cat.

wholelottasplainin' said...

Boise, Idaho, mid-1950's: catty-corner. First time I ever heard that expression.

wholelottasplainin' said...

"Hello Catty" somehow just doesn't work.

Jim at said...

Kattywumpus.

RobinGoodfellow said...

“Bob Boyd said...
I've heard people say kittywampus and cattywampus.”

My dad would say, “cattywampus” occasionally. I think he was the only person I heard use that in conversation.

Bob Boyd said...

Things could be worse. At least we don't have some folks going around saying doggywampus.

tcrosse said...

It's unlikely the NYT crossword will ever use Schnickelfritz.

iowan2 said...

cattycorner, is diagonal. cattywampus, is wracked, out of alignment, askew, out of kilter, too severe gets you to be fubar.

FWBuff said...

Here in Texas, I've only heard and used "catty corner" to mean "diagonally across the street".

My wife and her family (originally from West Tennessee)say "cattywampus" to mean physically tripped up, out of alignment, or otherwise discombobulated.

We use both of these useful and descriptive words frequently. No kitties need apply.

rcocean said...

I never knew America was full of Catty-corner types.

I feel like a stranger in my own land.

rcocean said...

You like catty and I like kitty
You like tomato and I like tomahto
Catty, kitty, catty, kitty
Let's turn a corner and call the whole thing off

D 2 said...

Kitty corner used here ... meaning diagonal across st

As for "at the four corners" .... I've tried my darnedest over decades to have certain intersections in (different) towns be labeled as such, so much that I got odd looks as to what I meant when I dropped it in conversation. I would then explain, and hope that the person would carry it forward with them to other parties, ....and I could find myself, years later, hearing some dude saying "...you know, near the diner, at the four corners"

Never heard it yet. But what is life without hope.

Rick.T. said...


Blogger tcrosse said...
It's unlikely the NYT crossword will ever use Schnickelfritz.

Goodness. I haven’t thought of that word in probably 60 years when my Irish grandfather would use it occasionally. Thanks for the memory!

I'm Full of Soup said...

We say catty corner here in Philly and pronounce creek as crick.

and FYI they called Larry Bird the Hick from French Lick.

Iman said...

It has always been kitteh corner around Casa de Iman...

JRoberts said...

I grew up in NW Indiana and we pronounced it "Caddy-Corner".

Didn't really know what it meant and we rarely, if ever, needed to use it in writing.

Never associated the term with felines.

Iman said...

Spanish Fark... Hobble Crick...

MSG said...

It was "kittycorner," meaning diagonally across an intersection, in Yonkers, New York, in the late 1950s. Though those who cared knew that it was spelled (or that the "real" word was)"catercorner."

Iman said...

I caught a 3.5 lb German Brown in Hobble Crick when I was 10 years old. Then, after excitedly kicking the rest of my bait into the water, I had to walk 2 miles to my aunt and uncle’s house in Mapleton...

ken in tx said...

For another French connection, consider that Potato is the English pronunciation of the French phrase, Pomme de Terre--Apple of the Earth.

jameswhy said...

I just published a short e-book about my experiences, back in the day, carrying the clubs for Nicklaus, Palmer, Els, Crenshaw and Corey Pavin. Title? Caddywampus! 99 cents at Amazon.

daskol said...

Catty corner is colorful, kitty corner is fey. If you say "opposite corner," even Aussies will know what you mean.

Big Mike said...

Growing up in a small midwestern town, it was always “kitty-corner.” Rex Parker is right.

Unknown said...

My father used to call me Schnickelfritz, when I was a boy in the 60s. Haven't heard that for a long time!

Grundoon said...

In the information-on-paper years one of my brothers was an editor for Encyclopedia Brittanica. It turns out that an encyclopedia company has a quite extensive library, including some of the thickest dictionaries ever made.

One Christmas my brother printed up a set of litte brochures as gifts. They were tidbits of esoteric information he had come across in the course of his work. One part was a list of vocabulary words.

Here is challenge for you. Use "spanghew" in a sentence.

Narayanan said...

Not to be ignored.
Topological everting - turning corner get you away from square.

Narayanan said...

I had biology professor who'd say we're all == donuts / Tori as phylum coelenterata.

mikee said...

In The Green, one of his wonderful novels about golf and its players, Troon McAllister has a fat black East LA kid caddying for a golf hustler use the word "cattywumpus" to describe crossgrained grass on the green, during a Ryder Cup golf match. The grass throws off a putt just enough to make the hustler lose the hole and his match. The book was my introduction to that word, and a great read as well.

I have since used the word cattywumpus to describe my mini Aussie's multidirectional fur, and any discussion with my spouse after I've had a drink or two. Otherwise, I have not a lot of uses for it.

Just today, a tiling subcontractor used the word to describe bad drywall surface finishes, a first time verbal use of the word by anyone I've ever met. That guy bears watching.

Michelle Dulak Thomson said...

You folks don't know about the Dictionary of American Regional English? I guess Bill Safire has been too long dead. But he was always running to "the man from DARE" in his NYT column. Anyway, it's six volumes of everything anyone could possibly want to know about what the title says. A scholarly compendium, nearly half a century old, and priced as you'd expect for a library staple (Harvard Univ. Press).

Safire covered kitty/catty-corner and came up with the same catre/quatre-corner explanation Ann did, but I forget how it shook out regionally.

SweatBee said...

I grew up saying "catty corner." The first time I heard someone say "kitty corner," I wasn't sure if that even meant the same thing.

madAsHell said...

It was always kitty-cornered until Texas, then it was katty-cornered.....y'all.

Trust me! There are elements of a five year sojourn in Texas that I cannot bleach out.

Kyjo said...

I don’t have any memory of hearing or using any of these words growing up in Southern California. If I did, “catty-corner” seems most likely owing to my grandmother’s Missouri extraction. “Catty-corner” is definitely the more common usage in Virginia, where I lived for many years, but I only heard it occasionally. Back in California these days, I never hear any of these words. Grammar Girl did a map based on a Facebook survey several years ago, which you can see here:

https://www.quickanddirtytips.com/education/grammar/kitty-corner-or-catty-corner

Roger Sweeny said...

"I got a crick in my neck."

"Any fish in it?"

My brother's favorite joke

Roger Sweeny said...

It's pronounced caddywampus, and it means meshugge.