A hullabaloo over cattywampus

Her hair!  Cattywampus, indeed.

Her hair! Cattywampus, indeed.

Little did you know that Detective Kathy has been on the job–working hard just for you–searching around the corners of this round globe for answers about a very mysterious word!

Journalist Kathy has scoured the amazing Internet, interviewed hapless and wise friends, and listened to etymologists! (An etymologist, just in case you’ve forgotten, studies the meaning and origin of words.)

Here’s how it all started.  On December 22, 2017, a lovely phone conversation ensued with Nicole.

Nicole, for those of you who don’t know, lives in Hamilton, Ontario, just across from the blue waters of Lake Huron. Once I drove across the bridge between Port Huron and Sarnia and motored many kilometers to visit her.  And wrote a blog about it, of course.

Nicole and I were chatting away on said December 22nd, when I must have said something like, “That was totally cattywampus.”  Or perhaps, “Kind of sounds cattywampus.”  Or even “Hey, cattywampus!”

Nicole and a cattywampus banana split!

Whatever cattywampus word burst from these lips, a silence ensued on the other end of the phone.

“What word did you say?” she asked.

“Cattywampus,” I replied.

She seemed clueless.  To one of my favorite words on the planet!  She requested spelling.  (Perhaps she thought your blogger was making up a word, as, admittedly, she is prone to do at times.)

I proceeded to attempt a definition.  “You know, off-kilter, kind of crazy, a bit twisted, off-balance.”

She had never heard of the word.

That’s when Sherlock came on the job.

A cattywampus robin beating itself against our sliding glass window several years ago

A cattywampus robin beating itself against our sliding glass window several years ago

“Barry,” said I, “What does cattywampus mean to you?”

“All mixed up,” said my patient long-suffering word-loving husband.

The word refused to leave my head.  I contemplated cattywampus for long days between Christmas and New Years.  I consulted Urban Dictionary.  The top definition spelled it catywampus and irreverently said:

Catywampus is a southern colloquialism that means off-kilter or unexpected.  The definer then provided an example:  That clock is all catywampus, effin thing runs backwards half the time.

Effin thing!  My goodness…

After several other “official” definitions, I decided to go directly to the Source.  My Facebook friends and family.  I inquired:  How many of my friends have heard the term “catywampuss”? Is it just a midwesterner saying, or do others know it? If you use it–what do you think it means? *Just doing research for a possible blog* Thanks for any insights!

The main question at this point of research, Watson, was to determine if it really was a Midwestern saying spoke only by my parents, Barry’s parents and my Thumb grandparents.  Did real live people still use this term?  Did they use it in Colorado and Maine and India?

Where the Wild Things Are--a perfect visual description of cattywampus

Where the Wild Things Are–a perfect visual description of cattywampus

Truly, Watson, I do not know the answer to all these questions, but here is what good detective work (and dozens of random answers) produced.

  1.  Cattywampus is still used by many folks across the United States.  All Canadians appeared a bit confused, but I only sampled two, so the research may be skewed.
  2. People grew up in the same town know and don’t know the word!  That amazed me the most.  My friend, Amy, grew up here in L’Anse.  She replied:   I have never heard of this word, in my memory! Until now…  Other friends growing up in L’Anse use it regularly.
  3. Same with the Thumb of Michigan.  Even though no family members deigned to answer this important question, probably rolling their eyes and scurrying away from obsessed Aunt Kathy, friends stated that they knew, loved, utilized the word voraciously!  Other Thumb occupants (those who live in Lower Michigan’s Thumb) seemed confused and almost cattywampus by this strange term.
  4. Similar definitions appeared.  Off-kilter.  You know, like the book Where the Wild Things Are (and how the creatures swing in trees.)  Awry, mess, twisted. Wrong, crooked, crazy. Bent out of shape. Out of order.  All over the place. Skewed, not stable. Discombobulated.  Screwed up. Crossing an intersection diagonally.
  5. Kathy, look up the Public Radio program “A Way with Words”.  The etymologists research words like cattywampus and maybe they’ve done a program!  (Three subjects insisted.)

I looked up A way with Words.  Noah Grace, a nine-year old from Yuma, Arizona, said “Mom uses it as all messed up.”  The wise etymologists replied that the word is at least one hundred years old, has 20-30 different spellings, and is probably a dialect from the British Isles.  Cater means diagonal and wampus means wriggly, swirly, loopy.  If a picture is on the wall and not straight–it’s cattywampus.  Here is part of the interview.

Cat?  Or cattywampus?

Cat? Or cattywampus?

My next question.  I am sorry, dear reader, but I cannot stop typing yet.  So much information!  Is this term dying out in common usage?  Do folks under thirty five utilize it in everyday conversation?

Both of my kids said no.  Absolutely not.  However, Heather disagrees.  Her response:  I’m right at 35 and still use it! And a friend’s 8 year old loves to describe his mood as cattywampus when he’s upset.

Watson, my final summary is this:  There is nothing as cattywampus as the usage of the word cattywampus.  People use and don’t use it.  Young people do and don’t know it.  People spell it differently, even within the same blog.  Some people in Arizona know it, and others don’t.  Some love it.  Probably some hate it–although that would involve more research to determine.

My mother suggested this obsession meant I needed more to do in my retirement.

John, a friend and blog reader said, “Only you could create a hullabaloo over catywampus.”

And now–I’m off to research hullabaloo!  Any other crazy or archaic words you know and love?




About Kathy

I live in the middle of the woods in Michigan's Upper Peninsula. Next to Lake Superior's cold shores. I love to blog.
This entry was posted in December 2017 and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

35 Responses to A hullabaloo over cattywampus

  1. Shirley Khodja says:

    Ha! All this time I’ve been saying “kittywampus”. I never heard the word growing up in northern Minnesota. In fact, I can’t tell you when or where I first heard it, but I knew instantly what it meant, and love to use it. It’s what I’d call a “juicy” word. Hullabaloo fits that category too. Language is so much fun!

    • Kathy says:

      Well, the guy on A Way with Words said there’s 20-30 different spellings, so maybe kittywampus is one of them. Too funny! And, yes, amazingly juicy. I like that you like language, too.

  2. dawnkinster says:

    Well, cattywampus is certainly going to be used a lot more now that you’ve exposed it to the world.

  3. Amy says:

    Speaking of cats: what’s this about letting a cat out of the bag? Our organist, a grad student from South Korea, was commenting one day on the peculiarity of this American phrase.

    • Kathy says:

      For your reading and etymological pleasure, Amy:

      There are two commonly heard suggested origins of this phrase. One relates to the fraud of substituting a cat for a piglet at markets. If you let the cat out of the bag you disclosed the trick – and avoided buying a pig in a poke (bag). This form of trickery is long alluded to in the language and ‘pigs in a poke’ are recorded as early as 1530.

      Cat o’ nine tailsThe other theory is that the ‘cat’ referred to is the cat o’ nine tails, which was used to flog ill-disciplined sailors. Again, this has sufficient historical record to be at least possible. The cat o’ nine tails was widely used and was referred to in print many years prior to the first use of ‘let the cat out of the bag’. The ‘nine tails’ part of the name derives from the three strands of cord that the rope lashes were made from. Each of the cords were in turn made from three strands of string. When unbraided a piece of rope separated into nine strings. The ‘cat’ part no doubt alluded to the scratches that the knotted ends of the lash made on the victim’s back, like those from a cat’s claws.

      Of the two explanations, the ‘pig in a poke’ derivation is the more plausible, although I can find no direct documentary evidence to link ‘letting the cat out of the bag’ to the selling of livestock. Versions of the phrase exist in both Dutch – ‘Een kat in de zak kopen’ and in German – ‘Die Katze im Sack kaufen’. These both translate loosely as ‘to buy a cat in a bag’, that is, to buy false goods.

      The cat o’ nine tails story is dubious at best. It is reported that the lashes were sometimes stored in bags, but the suggested nautical punishment origin fails at the critical point, in that it doesn’t match the ‘disclose a secret’ meaning of the phrase.

      The first known use of the phrase in print that I have found is in a 1760 edition of The London Magazine:

      “We could have wished that the author… had not let the cat out of the bag.”

      There are several other literary references to the phrase in the 1760s and 1770s, most of which place it in quotations marks – a sure sign of it being not commonly understood and consequently, newly coined.

  4. I’ve known catywampus (however you want to spell it) since I was a kid. I lived in Dallas, TX with parents from the upper midwest, then moved back to Iowa so I have no idea whether I got it from them or from the Texans. I always thought it meant diagonally across from something, as in “the drugstore on the corner is catywampus from the dime store.” Yep, I’m old enough to remember when my parents and their generation called variety stores “dime stores” and complained bitterly that nothing in the dime store could be bought for a dime or even a quarter.

    • Kathy says:

      Esther, one of the Facebook commenters (who is from the south) said the same. Someone else thought he may be confused, but it turns out that is a common usage. We had a dime store across from our drugstore in my hometown. You are right–nothing cost a dime any more, even in my childhood.

  5. Bonnie says:

    I shall patiently await the time when I can use the term cattiwampas, and thrill my friends with it. 🙂

  6. My life has missed a most wonderful word up until this point. OH! When I think about how many times I would have included CATTYWAMPUS in my conversations over my many (ahem, we won’t say how many) years of life. This is jus cattywampus! The word describes so many things perfectly, like the American political year of 2017; my guy’s description of the metrological going-ons in our town every morning; my son’s insistence on commuting to San Francisco, on his bike, every morning; the way my peanut butter kiss cookies turned out the other day. A L L — CATTYWAMPUS.
    But now, I know the word, and I should use it with the frequency to which it is entitled.

  7. Barb says:

    I’ve used this word, and I’m sure my mother said it often when I was growing up in PA among people of German/Dutch ancestry. My 3 oldest Grands arrive soon (14 year old twins and a 13 year old). I’m going to ask them if they know the meaning. Of course, now it will stick in my head, and I’ll begin using it again. Cattywampus! Cattywampus! PS Spell check doesn’t even question it!)

    • Kathy says:

      Barb, it will be interesting to discover if your Grands know the word. It seems to be a hit and miss proposition. Even if they don’t know it, surely they’ll be using it regularly by the time they leave your home! P.S. Have a blast with them–and hoping for none of that cattywampus early teen behavior!

  8. Sara says:

    From St. Paul, MN here – I totally know the term cattywampus.. You’re not insane, nor are you using a word that shouldn’t be know throughout the entire universe. Spread the word, far and wide! Used in a sentence – The political climate of the United States is cattywampus! Too bad if spell-check doesn’t know it. Cattywampus on, Kathy! I know that’s my status.

    • Kathy says:

      Ha ha, Sara, good one! I was pondering writing a post about the cattywampus political situation…but had too much other information to share! I like what you say. Cattywampus on! (We’ll have to form a club.)

  9. rehill56 says:

    Funny. I know the word, understood it, but have never used it! Is there such a thing as a cattywampus phobia? That WOULD be cattywampus. And now that I’ve used the word it feels strange. It’s not in my comfort zone. Lol. Very strange. (I love language too.) 😁

    • Kathy says:

      OK, now you have me laughing, Ruth. How funny that the word is not in your comfort zone! I have always loved it when the word appears willy-nilly out of nowhere. It also produces itself at exactly the right moment. However, it may not sense that you’re friendly towards it (or perhaps even think it’s weird). Therefore, surely, it will stay away, gravitating instead toward folks who are slightly cattywampus. 🙂

  10. Elisa says:

    i use cattywampus though i haven’t used it in a while

  11. Cattywampus is a great word that I haven’t heard in a long time! A dear friend of mine used the word kerfuffle a lot and I love that one too. I’m going to try and use cattywampus now. Fun!

    • Kathy says:

      Sherrie, kerfuffle? Hmmm, I do not use this word! I have heard of it, though. Apparently it means “a commotion or fuss”. Kind of like a hullabaloo? Glad you’re on board with cattwampus!

  12. Karen says:

    I haven’t heard the word cattwampus or hullabaloo in the longest time. Fun post. 😀 Wishing you all the best in the New Year and can’t wait to see what you share with us.

  13. Sybil Nunn says:

    It’s a wonderful word. Hope I can remember it and how to use it.

    Love your detailed research. I feel privileged to be representing 50% of Canada.

    • Kathy says:

      Syb, I think you’re down to about 25% of Canada now that I have four opinions. You all think the same thing. How come cattywampus hasn’t crossed the borders? Immigration control? 😉

  14. Kathy, I can understand your desire to hunt down words. I have a great passion for the English language, but cattywampus is a new one for me. Most Canadians will still use hullaballoo for making a ruckus. It is an English word that was used at least as the early 1760s in England and may or may not have its origins in the Indian subcontinent.
    I don’t always read your blog, but started to follow it a couple of months ago.
    (for your info. I live north of Lake Ontario, not far from Hamilton, which also is located on the same lake, and quite a distance from Lake Huron)

    • Kathy says:

      Alide, nice to meet you a bit more officially! You are now the fifth Canadian I have heard from who doesn’t know the word cattywampus. Please introduce it to your fellow Canadians! Thank you for stopping by to read, and for living within a stone’s throw (or further) from our Great Lakes. Happy New Year!

      • Hi Kathy, belated Happy 2018.

        I am not sure I want to introduce cattywampus to my friends. It’s not a word I can connect to easily. It somehow doesn’t fit into my surroundings. If you are comfortable with it, good for you. It is certainly amusing. Have a great day,

  15. Pingback: Feeling under the weather–for four months now | Lake Superior Spirit

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