I recently used an old family (Ozark) word, “catawampus,” and my wife looked at me all catawampus, so I thought I’d better post about it. Green’s Dictionary of Slang has (as I would expect) a splendid entry, with the following succession of senses:

1. fierce, pitiless; thus adv. catawampously.
2. excessive.
3. ill-tempered, crotchety; in a tantrum.
4. out of order, wrong.
5. (also cattywampus) askew; thus catawampously, catawamptiously.
6. (also cattywhompus, (US campus) eccentric.

The first two are alien to me; the third is not my usage, but I think I would understand it if I heard it. My basic senses are ‘out of order’ and ‘askew,’ and I can think of no better way to express them. The OED, in its ancient (1889 vintage) entry (s.v. catawampous), says “Fierce, unsparing, destructive. Also, askew, awry. (A high-sounding word with no very definite meaning.)” (You have to love that parenthetical obiter dictum.) Its etymology reads “A humorous formation, the origin of which is lost: the first part of the word was perhaps suggested by catamount, or ? by words in Greek κατα-.” Green says “[ety. unknown; ? SE cater-/catty-cornered, diagonal]”; for what it’s worth, I’ve always associated it with catty-cornered (or, equally familiar to me, kitty-cornered).

In other interesting lexical news, I just discovered that French ornière ‘rut’ is “Alteration, under the influence of orne, of Old French ordiere, inherited from Vulgar Latin *orbitaria, from Latin orbita.” (That Latin word, meaning both ‘track or rut made in the ground by a wheel’ and ‘circuit, orbit,’ is of course from orbis ‘ring, circle, orbit.’) Whodathunkit?


  1. J.W. Brewer says

    I feel like the Venn-diagram overlap between people who habitually spoke of catamounts and people who habitually spoke of “words in Greek κατα-” may not have been very large?

  2. It turns out DARE has a good entry on catawampus (“also caliwampus, cankywampus, cattywampus and many other varr”); it gives the etymology as “Alter of cater- + wampus, wampous, perhaps rel to Scots wampish to wriggle, twist or swerve about.” Of distribution, it says “Widely scattered except NEast,” and it has cites antedating Green’s. Thanks, Y!

  3. J.W. Brewer says

    To pick up on an earlier thread, what did your respectable Norwegian-Iowan mother do when your father came out with an Ozarkism like this? Look at him all cattywampus? Or did she assimilate the lexeme to her own idiolect?

  4. By the time I came along she had adjusted to (and enjoyed) the various Ozarkisms, which were rarely used by him (his dialect had been pretty much rubbed away first by the army and then by the Foreign Service) but frequently by his family (we spent a lot of time with my Aunt Bettie and Uncle Gene and Aunt Marty, two sisters and an Ozark brother-in-law, and some — not enough — with their parents). I don’t think she used them herself, though. (She said “uffda!” a lot.)

  5. I’ve also associated cattawampus, which I pronounce catty-wampus, with catty-corner. I’ve always assumed they were related.

    I’m from southern stock, but my wife is Philadelphian. When I first said catty-korner to her, it was completely foreign to her. She had no idea what I was saying.

  6. cuchuflete says

    “Widely scattered except NEast,”


    I was born in the mid-west, but first heard cattywumpus from a native Mainer, the owner of our village hardware store, when he told me how to install a new dryer cable. “If it’s all cattywumpus just turn it around.”

    Speaking of scattered, my Philadelphian mother used to tell me I was “scattered all in a bunch”, which she claimed was a Pennsylvania Dutch expression. In Maine they say, “bouncing around like a fart in a mitten”, which seems to be limited to Maine and Prince Edward Island north of the border.

  7. i’m part of the “except NEast”, so i only know “cattywampus” from books and later life (and similarly to hat, only as “askew/askance”). but i do have “kitty-corner” (and “catty-corner” is almost as familiar), and have always assumed that the “diagonally opposite” meaning was related to the directional part of cattywampus’ “askew”.

  8. ktschwarz says

    Dave Wilton did a Big List entry on catawampus — it was my request. He searched newspapers, which Green and DARE didn’t, and antedated both of them with an 1830 find.

    I only know it vaguely and from reading, personally, but it certainly seems like it must be related to catty-cornered (< older catercornered; Big List, Michael Quinion). The puzzling thing is that the ‘ferocious, monstrous’ senses have earlier citations than the ‘askew, disordered’ senses in Green’s, DARE, and the OED — but then Dave’s 1830 citation defines catawampusly as “obliquely, bias”, so now they’re both attested at about the same time.

    HDAS has plenty of citations, too, though no further ideas about the origin.

  9. Pohaku Nezami says

    I am Ozark-bred, though I lost most all ties to that area by adolescence. Cattywampus was a common term in our house when I was young. For some reason, though, it’s not one of the Ozark terms that pops out of my mouth and surprises my wife, who’s from Illinois.

  10. I have heard catawampus used in California but 1) only a few times, not often 2) only from Anglos ( as in I don’t remember any Hispanics (other than myself, maybe) use it when speaking English, and 3) I’ve heard it pronounced as “cattywampus”. The Ozarks reach into Oklahoma so maybe the word arrived in California with the Okies back in the 30s, maybe.

  11. It also occurs to me that although I’m familiar with cattawampus, I don’t use it myself. I do, however, regularly use skeewampus with a nearly identical meaning of “out of order” or askew.

  12. The Ozarks reach into Oklahoma so maybe the word arrived in California with the Okies back in the 30s, maybe.

    Absolutely; that’s when my Okie/Arkie kinfolk arrived in California.

  13. I learned this word through the Cattywampus food truck at Georgia Tech, which I was certain was a play on words until I tried to finally figure it out and couldn’t (so I googled).

  14. Steve Plant says


    I was brought up in the Midlands of England where it was common to use “skeewiff” (apparently from skew + weft) to describe something askew.

  15. ktschwarz says

    More on skew-whiff, previously at Language Hat.

  16. I am currently unable, my computer tells me, to access newspapers databases nor OED nor DARE, but fwiw, here’s a 2007 mail [an antedating back then] I sent to American Dialect Society list, with Liberman’s bug suggestion that seems worth further consideration:

    United States? Telegraph, (Washington, DC) Thursday, July 23, 1835; pg. 798
    (=page 2 of 4 for this issue); Issue [200]; col A
    [article begins:] After some very catawampus chawing of the Philadelphia Vade
    Necum (a rival sporting paper), the Editor gives a programme of “THE DAY”
    Itemized and Condensed

    “Is the tale true, think ye?”
    “Very true, and not above a month old:–
    Here are five justices hands to it!”–Shakespeare

    Fashionables leaving, People gathering, Cousind arriving, Horses bolting,
    Rockets flying, Tailors suffering….4th of July-ing.

    OED has 1840 for catawampous.
    According to Anatoly Liberman (July 20, 2007 blog at

    “Wampus, a noun with sufficient currency, means ?monster, hobgoblin,? a
    circumstance that came to the attention of lexicographers relatively late.
    …Apparently, catawampuses were like ?bugs? (a bug is, among other things,
    a hobgoblin).”

  17. @Dan, that makes me wonder where the line for catty-corner is. I’m from northern Delaware. My whole family used kitty-corner, but I knew catty-corner also. Reflecting on the terms, I can’t say I’ve heard either spoken in years though.

    My husband (from New England) informs me he uses catty-corner.

  18. My mother (b.1950, Illinois/Wisconsin border) uses the form “kittywampus” in senses 4, 5, and 6. She claims to be unaware of any other form of the word.

    (Long time reader here, first time commenting. And delighted to finally have something to contribute.)

  19. J.W. Brewer says

    “Kitty-corner” (maybe “kitty-korner?”) was commonplace/unremarkable/standard* in my own Northern Delaware childhood, very close to the Pa. state line and probably <20 miles as crow flies from the Philly city line. Catty-corner would have sounded like a slightly weird variant but not been incomprehensible. I don't recall encountering "cattywampus" or any variant thereof as a child, or for that matter very much as an adult, but I've lived almost all of my life in the "NE" broadly speaking and perhaps neither my three years in Tokyo nor my three years in Chicago involved a lot of contact with the right sort of non-NE AmEng speakers.

    *I suppose it sounds a little childish so I might have wondered as a child if grown-ups had a fancier way of expressing the same sort of diagonal spatial relationship that I would learn when I was older. Turns out they didn't.

  20. I also grew up hearing cattywampus and catty-cornered, with parents from Tidewater and Shenandoah ends of Virginia. Don’t think either word got to Hawaii, where I’ve spent most of the past 50 years, but Hawaiian and Hawaiian English has a pretty good, widely used equivalent of cattywampus: kapakahi lit. ‘side one’ but used to mean ‘one-sided, crooked, lopsided, sideways; bent, askew; biased, partial to one side; to show favoritism.

  21. (Long time reader here, first time commenting. And delighted to finally have something to contribute.)

    I’m delighted too, but you don’t have to restrict yourself to actual contributions to the topic at hand — jokes and obiter dicta are fine too!

  22. ə de vivre says

    Regardless of etymological reality, I’m going to start using “anawampus” (αναουαμπος) to mean “squared, level, in place.”

  23. David Marjanović says

    Technically incorrect – the best kind of incorrect!

  24. ktschwarz says

    J.W. Brewer: “I might have wondered as a child if grown-ups had a fancier way of expressing the same sort of diagonal spatial relationship that I would learn when I was older. Turns out they didn’t.”

    Sure they do! Catercornered is the pedantic, New Yorker-stylebook-prescribed version.

  25. I suspect the homeliness of the catercornered clan has militated against its adoption in BrE, which has to fill the lexical gap with “diagonally opposite”.

  26. John Cowan says

    That would be “anawabus” nowadays.

  27. ktschwarz says

    Craig: “that makes me wonder where the line for catty-corner is. I’m from northern Delaware. My whole family used kitty-corner, but I knew catty-corner also.”

    DARE has kitty-corner labeled “chiefly North, North Midland, West”, while catty-corner (and catercorner and all cat- variations) are “chiefly South, South Midland”. But their map of kitty-corner has a scattering of points in the South too, and people do move around.

    I’m from that neither-South-nor-North zone too, and I’d say “kitty-corner” is probably more familiar to me, but “catty-corner” is also known.

  28. so “bug” as in “bugbear”?

  29. Alteration, under the influence of orne, of Old French ordiere

    Just to clarify for LH readers, the entry orne in the English Wiktionary that was linked to does not include the French lexeme orne that is relevant to the folk-etymological alteration of ordiere.

    For orne, the English Wiktionary gives only the meaning ‘manna ash (Fraxinus ornus)’. In most of France—outside Corsica and the very southeast—the manna ash is seen only in cultivation, or as an occasional escapee from cultivation. The name of this tree, orne, is usually considered to be a borrowing of Latin ornus, and it is apparently attested only from the 16th century, far too late to have influenced the formation of ornière, attested already in the 13th century.

    The orne that is relevant for ornière is another word altogether: Old French orne ‘row of vines’, in Modern French usually in the meaning ‘shallow trench or furrow between rows of vines in a vineyard’, and with reflexes in regional dialects as ‘furrow’. This orne ‘row, line, furrow, trench, etc.’ is etymologically completely distinct from orne ‘manna ash’. The meaning ‘shallow trench between rows of vines’ is in fact given at the entry for orne in the Wiktionnaire, but the Wiktionnaire does not distinguish the two words orne in any way and offers no separate etymology for orne in the meaning ‘shallow trench in a vineyard’.

    Old French orne (masc.) ‘row of vines’, French orne ‘shallow trench in a vineyard, etc.’, looks like it developed from Latin ordinem, accusative of ordo, ‘row, line, series’. Specifically, it would descend regularly from a Vulgar Latin *ŏrdinem, accusative of an *ŏrdō ‘row, line, series’, with an apparent Romance short ŏ in the first syllable. However, Latin ōrdō ‘row, line, series’ is usually considered to have had an unetymological long ō in the first syllable, based on: (1) other reflexes in Romance; (2) the vowel of the Latin loanword into Brythonic seen in Breton urzh, Welsh urdd ‘order’; (3) an apex on the o in the inscription CIL 9.5177. For the usual development of the Latin vowels ŏ and ō in this environment in French, compare Latin cornū > French cor (Spanish cuerno) and L cornua > F corne (cf. Sp cuerna), beside L cōrtem (cohortem) > F court (cf. Sp corte), L fōrma > OF fourme, subsequently replaced by the learned form forme (cf. inherited Sp horma ‘mould, shoe last, shoe tree, hat tree’), L furnus > F four (cf. Sp horno), showing the long ō and short u falling together in this part of Romance. But there are some exceptional developments, like French gorge ‘throat’ (cf. Valencian, Mallorcan Catalan gorga ‘throat’), from a Vulgar Latin *gŭrga ‘gorge’, an alteration of Latin gŭrges, gŭrgit- ‘whirlpool, gulf, abyss’.

    The entry for orne ‘row, line, furrow, rut’ in the Französisches Etymologisches Wörterbuch is here, where an OF variant ourne ‘path of a star’, etc. with ou is also mentioned. I suppose learned influence from Classical Latin ordo, ordinis ‘row, series’, could be invoked for the vowel o in orne, considering the OF locution a orne ‘one after the other, successively’, although that explanation seems a bit of a stretch, given the phonetic distance between the Latin and the French forms and the homely nature of many of the uses of orne.

  30. J.W. Brewer says

    Very late, and after this thread had died down, I found myself wondering how I expressed the “out of order” and/or “askew” concepts in a vernacular register since it certainly isn’t with “cattywampus.” I think I’d be most likely to say “off-kilter.” Which I mention only because the google n-gram viewer advises that it is only within the last quarter-century that “off-kilter” became a more common variant than “out of kilter” (which is still the majority variant in the BrEng subcorpus) yet I somehow lack any conscious memory of ever either saying or hearing “out of kilter” although it seems quite likely that I did.

  31. John Cowan says

    I definitely say out of kilter, and off-kilter strikes me as a hybrid between that form and the off- ‘wrongly’ of off-color, off-track, off-topic (and also off-piste, which is not a word I use even metaphorically).

    The word kilter is interesting in itself because it’s only used in PPs. Walter Scott wrote in high kelter (older BrE variant) ‘in very good order’ in 1828, but Robert Louis Stevenson half a century later has only out of kilter. We have to go back to 1728 (per the DSL) and actual Scots as opposed to ScE to get Syne on my Fair hours’ Luntion chew’d my Cude / Sic Kilter pat me in a merry Mood. Wikt, whose definitions are synchronic, doesn’t even try to define it out of the out of context.

    As for the etymology, Wikt and the OED3 say “origin unknown” but then treat the (to me) obvious relationship to kilt (up) v. ‘tuck up (neatly)’ as a mere speculation. Kilt at least is North Germanic: Da kilte (op) ‘id.’, Sw dial. kilta ‘swathe, swaddle’ < ON kilting, kelta, kjalta ‘skirt; lap’. Wikt connects it with PG *kelt-, *kelþǭ, *kilþį̄ ‘womb’, in which case kilt is a doublet of child, which is formally all right but the semantics are IMO strained.

  32. J.W. Brewer says

    “Kilter” not being in active use for the overwhelming majority of living speakers outside one or the other variant of this fixed phrase presumably leads to a lack of reliable intuition as to whether “off” or “out of” suggests the more cromulent spatial relationship for the (often metaphorical) meaning expressed by the fixed phrase. Is it more analogous to “off center” or to “out of alignment”? To “offbeat” or to “out of synch”? Dunno, might depend on what a “kilter” is.

  33. John Cowan says

    When something is out of kilter, it’s out of order. As distinct from the cow’s good mood.

  34. J.W. Brewer says

    I don’t treat off-kilter, at least, as synonymous with “out of order.” Perhaps the “askew” sense is the primary one for me? It’s consistent with something being functional, but not operating perfectly as designed (or at least not looking like it should – the askewness could be purely cosmetic without any degradation of functionality), whereas “out of order” means the durn thing don’t work, period.

  35. I think of ‘out of kilter’ as being more dynamical — a poorly timed engine would be out of kilter, for example.

    I can’t think of an informal Br Eng equivalent to catawampus. Perhaps ‘skew-whiff,’ as mentioned above, but I think of that as having a somewhat more specific meaning of ‘misaligned,’ e.g. an out-of-plumb door jamb.

  36. John Cowan says

    You’re right about out of order, of course. I should have said “out of good order” or something of the sort.

  37. I sometimes wonder if catawampus might not be cod-Greek, inspired by katoblepas ‘the downlooker’, a mythical animal whose head is so big it can’t hold it up, possibly a rumor of the wildebeest.

  38. David Marjanović says

    A sighting!

    There was this little public park that had something military folks called the “fifty-foot slide” because it was a concrete slide, and it was about 50 feet tall (military folks have a real genius for naming the obvious, but that’s another story). My kids loved that thing, and I had my share of fun bombing down it and going all cattywampus into the sand pit at the bottom. There is no joy quite like a toddler and parent having fun together.


  1. […] all meaning ‘cornerwise’ or ‘diagonal(ly)’. The charming American word cattywampus (catawampus, kittywampus, etc.) partly overlaps catty-cornered in sense and […]

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