Word Of The Month: Kitty-corner

David Zapatka

Reader and friend Jim Nulty writes, “I saw the term ‘kitty-corner’ used in a book I’m reading, looked it up and thought you may want to use it in your column.”

Kitty-corner – adverb or adjective ki-tē-ˌkȯr-nər, or less commonly ka-tē-,kȯr-nər

1. Adverb – diagonally or obliquely

2. Adjective – in a diagonal or oblique position

Examples of kitty-corner used in a sentence:

1. “The malt shop is kitty–corner across the square from the bank.”

2. “She pointed kitty–corner across the street where her friend was standing.”

Whether you say kitty-corner, catty-corner or something else largely depends on your region of the country. In a dialect survey of 10,000 people in the United States, nearly 50% of respondents said they used the word “kitty-corner” making it the most popular usage. These people were mostly concentrated in the northern and western states. Another 30% used “catty-corner,” with respondents concentrated in the South. Other respondents used cater-corner, diagonal or something else and were scattered throughout the states.

Despite all of the “cats” and “kits,” the word has nothing to do with domesticated felines. It stems from the word “cater-corner.” “Cater” is an English word meaning “to set or move diagonally.” It’s derived from the French “quatre,” which means “four-cornered” and was first introduced to the English as the number four on dice and was promptly anglicized to cater.

The placement of the dots on a die at the four corners of the square led the way to turning cater from a noun to a verb which meant “to place something diagonally.” Use of cater as a verb can be traced to the 16th century. Soon the word “cater” lost all link to its French root and substitutes arose. People often thought that the word actually had something to do with cats, so cat derivatives started cropping up. “Catty-corner” was likely the first mutilation of cater-corner, with kitty-corner showing up in the mid-1800s along with other words with the “cat” sound.

There are areas of the United States where the word “catawampus,” “kattywumpus” or “kittywampus” mean the same thing as kitty-corner. For most people, this word means something like “askew, crooked, or out of alignment.” It’s possible that “catawampus” shares the same root as kitty-corner—cater—paired with the Scottish “wampish,” which means “to wriggle, twist, and swerve about.” This would explain the “askew” and “diagonal” meanings, which were first recorded in 1864 and 1873 respectively.

“The cat’s pajamas,” a phrase originating in the early 1920s, meant something or someone really cool and was commonly used by flappers who were sometimes called “cats,” a derogatory term not to be confused with men of the same period being called “cats,” which meant “cool.”

At the time, pajamas were new sleepwear and considered risqué which appealed to flappers known for their unconventional choices of apparel which may be the reason they chose that particular item of clothing.

Do you prefer kitty-corner or catty-corner? Please email your thoughts and favorite words to dzapatka@wbhsi.net.