Word Smith: Catawampus
I was reading an old journal the other day and I came across a word that I did not know the proper spelling. When I thought more about it, I was not sure of the origin, the real meaning or the spell of the word. It was Catawampus.
With some research (got to love Google), the word is an American colloquialism from the 1830’s. Apparently the word has several accepted spellings, including catawampous, cattywampus, catiwampus, etc. (Readers can see “Dictionary of American Slang” for more spellings). The first element of the word “cata-“ is perhaps from the obsolete cater “to set or move diagonally” (as in catty-cornered); the second element “wampus” seems to be related to the Scottish word wampish, which means “to wriggle, twist, or swerve about.” Still not clear on the meaning, I began to wonder, is the word simple a funny way of constructing a polite way to say that things were terribly askew. Or perhaps the whole expression is one of the slang words of the times.
Catawampus & Parts of Speech
Over the years and in various dialects, the word has been considered for various parts of speech. It has been an adverb, noun and adjective. Taking them one by one, first is the adverb: catawampusly (1834), was a word expressing no certain meaning but adding intensity to the action: “utterly, completely; with avidity, fiercely, eagerly.”
As a noun: catawampus (1843), was a name for an imaginary hobgoblin or fright, half bird, half cat, all trouble. Or perhaps the name is under the influence of a mountain lion, known as a catamount or Puma.
And as an adjective: catawampus (1840) may refer to the British would say the word to lampoon American speech. Just listen to the near-Cockney slang from Baltimoreans today and you can get the idea. Also as an adjective, the word was used in parts of the US (1864) to mean “askew, awry, wrong.” Also “fierce, savage and destructive.” By 1873 (as noted as a peculiarity of North Carolina speech) the word was used to refer to the orientation of an object as either “in a diagonal position, on a bias, or crooked.”