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!”
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.
“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?
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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
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?