All catawampus, but no catastrophe

To convey a sense of disorder – but not total chaos – 'catawampus' is one of the best words for the job.

Like music or fragrance, language can have the power to take us back to a certain time and place, or to remind us of a particular person. Sometimes a single word is all it takes.

So it happened when I was reading the musings of a group of accomplished architects who were reflecting on their education and careers. One of our local institutions of higher learning had surveyed its graduates, and I was editing the responses.

I was not expecting to be reminded of my mother, but there she was, brought to mind by a single word in the piece – "cattywampus."

One of the alums used it in describing a critical moment in her education. She wrote of "stumbling into the cattywampus 'built-form' studios on the 4th floor of Building 7 and thinking it was cool enough to stay there and finish the degree."

So that's how it's spelled! Or at least one of the ways it's spelled. Where I'd gone astray before in looking for it in the dictionary was in expecting d's instead of t's.

It was a word I felt I understood the first time I ever heard Mom use it. But I was curious where it came from. And when I saw the alternative spelling catawampus, I began to wonder whether the word is connected with all the other cata words in English.

This began with my wondering, Is there a connection between catalog and catastrophe?

There is. Cata is a Greek element that means "down" or "against," or sometimes "bad." A catalog is, etymologically, a list set down. A catastrophe is a downturn – the point where everything falls down, literally. A cataclysm is a deluge – a wave that rushes in and knocks you down. A catapult hurls something against something else. The catalog of "cata" words goes on and on.

But should catawampus be part of it? The Oxford English Dictionary calls it "a humorous formation, the origin of which is lost," but suggests that its front end might indeed be the Greek cata.

One of the examples of usage is from the Anne of Green Gables books: "Dear me, everything has gone catawampus with me this week." Exactly how Mom used to use the word.

But other dictionaries have other ideas. Dictionary.com, based on the Random House Unabridged Dictionary, defines catawampus as "askew, awry," but also as "positioned diagonally; cater-cornered." This cater, with a flat "a," is borrowed from the French word for four, quatre, and shows up in a number of old-fashioned words for things at an angle. (And cater-corner has nothing feline about it, by the way, despite the various cute kitty-cat spellings with which it's sometimes rendered.) My favorite in this group is cater-snozzle, a verb meaning to make an angle or to "mitre" a piece of wood, for instance.

A little less colorful but perhaps more frequently used are caterwise or caterways, as in "to cut caterwise through a field – that is, diagonally. The Random House dictionary suggests catawampus for just this purpose: "We took a shortcut and walked catawampus across the field."

I got in touch with the architect whose reminiscence had gotten my wheels turning to ask what she could tell me about cattywampus in her life.

She said she wasn't sure why she'd used the word and that after looking it up, she thought maybe she had it wrong. She'd meant to describe the genial disorder of creativity in that design studio: "It was a little like the Swiss Family Robinson tree house, but with drafting tables."

But her dictionary suggested that catawampus meant "diagonal."One might split the difference though, between the two definitions by seeing them both as meaning "off by 90 degrees." The "askew" sense suggests disorder, but disorder that can be put right, rather than total chaos – as in that design studio.

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