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Idiom. The trucks were parked cattywampus in the lot. Other spelling, catawampus.

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    Probably related to "kitty-cornered", et al. – Hot Licks Oct 24 '16 at 0:47
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    The etymology is a mess and intertwined with the folklore of Native Americans, the early Scots and Welsh Appalachian settlers, and particularly, the early river people of the Carolina lowlands and the upper Tennessee River. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wampus_cat. Catawampus doesn't just mean something is sitting askew. It means it got knocked that way having suffered some violence and indignity. – Phil Sweet Oct 24 '16 at 3:39
  • Welcome to EL&U. Please note that it is a general expectation of the site that you indicate your initial research— what do dictionaries show? What have you found on the web? I strongly encourage you to take the site tour and review the help center for additional guidance. – choster Oct 24 '16 at 19:04
  • Many thanks for the generous comments you all made. I am not able to make this Comments system work well because I'm new to the site, but I wanted you to know I'm grateful for your help. In my next comment I'll put the excerpt from my book so you can see how I used "cattywampus." – Lou Nelson Oct 24 '16 at 19:15
  • Excerpt from Rebel Love Song, releasing Dec. 15 on Amazon U.S: "It was getting toward the balmy late afternoon of the birthday party, guests standing in groups in the ranch yard, preparing to walk to town or ride home. A few were jawing and eating dessert. Some of the hard-working miners had heaped their plates with pie, cake, fudge, pulled candy, and cookies and were finishing off the sweets. Children shrieked and played tag, while the horses grazed on spring grass in a fenced meadow and wagons stood cattywampus near the barn. Two boys about fourteen sat on the meadow fence.... – Lou Nelson Oct 24 '16 at 19:16
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'Catawampus' in early dictionaries

The first dictionary coverage of a catawampus-like word is actually a phrase. From John Bartlett, Dictionary of Americanisms, first edition (1848), page 66:

CATAWAMPTIOUSLY CHAWED UP. Completely demolished, utterly defeated. One of the ludicrous monstrosities in which the vulgar language of the Southern and Western States abounds. [Example:] In this debate Mr. B. was 'catawamptiously chawed up;' in his arguments were not only met, but his sarcasm returned upon himself with great effect. —Charleston [South Carolina] Mercury

The second edition of Bartlett (1859) at page 71 essentially repeats the first editions definitions for "Catawampously or Catawamptiously," but includes two additional examples, including this one from an 1857 speech by Frederick Douglass:

There is something cowardly in the idea of disunion. Where is the wealth and power that should make us fourteen millions take to our heels before three hundred thousand slaveholders, for fear of being catawamptiously chawed up?

And as late as the fourth edition of Bartlett (1877), at page 105, there is still no hint of the "diagonal" meaning in the entry for the term.

Maximilian Schele de Vere, Americanisms: The English of the New World (1872) offers this discussion on page 590:

Catawampous, or catawamptious, a word enlarged in the West from catamount. This animal had already furnished the hunter with the expression, "he dropped on him like a catamount on a coon," and hence, no doubt, the further development of the word. "He was catawamptiously chawed up," was said of a political character, who had been fiercely attacked by a host of adversaries in the Legislature of Missouri; and even orators of greater pretension, addressing a body of national representatives have not disdained to use the phrase. To chaw up, for demolish, is also used without such energetic qualification, and occasionally applied to one's own words, for the common term to eat.

Bartlett (1848) reports that "Although this animal [the catamount] is peculiar to North America, a similar name, that of catamountain, for the wild cat, is common in the old authors, from which we probably borrowed it. The catamount of North America is a larger and very different animal from the wild cat of Europe." Merriam-Webster's Eleventh Collegiate Dictionary (2003) says catamount may refer to a cougar (aka mountain lion, puma, or panther), a lynx, or some other wild cat.

John Farmer, Americanisms—Old & New (1889), page 128, has this:

CATAWAMPTIOUSLY. — With avidity; fierce eagerness. A negro derivative from CARAMOUNT, and founded on the ferocity exhibited by animals of that species in attacking their prey. In the South-west the simile "like a catamount attacking a coon" is part of the popular speech, and from this is obtained TO BE CA[T]AWAMPTIOUSLY CHAWED UP, an idiom signifying complete annihilation.

Charles Dickens, in one of the chapters of Martin Chuzzlewit (1843–1844) set in the United States has young Martin's servant Mark Tapley report the following conversation with a rustic local:

'Am I rightly informed,' he says; not exactly though his nose, but as if he'd got a stoppage in it, very high up: 'that you're a-going to the Walley of Eden?' 'I heard some talk on it,' I told him. 'Oh!' says he, 'if you should ever happen to go to bed there—you may you know,' he says, 'in course of time as civilization progresses—don't forget to take a axe with you.' I looks at him tolerable hard. 'Fleas?' says I. 'And more,' says he. 'Wampires?' says I. 'And more,' says he. 'Musquitoes, perhaps,' says I. 'And more,' says he. 'What more?' says I. "Snakes more,' says he; 'rattlesnakes. You're right to a certain extent stranger. There air some catawampous chawers in the small way too, as graze upon a human pretty strong; but don't mind them, they're company. It's snakes,' he says, 'as you'll object to: and whenever you wake and see one in a upright poster on your bed,' he says, 'like a corkscrew with the handle off a-sittin' on s bottom ring, cut him down, for he means wenom.'

Subsequently the word seems to have broadened in meaning and spelling. From Robert Hendrickson, The Facts on File Dictionary of American Regionalisms (2000):

catawampus (1) Cater-cornered. "He walked catawampus across the street." Also heard as CATTYWAMPUS. (2) A hobgoblin or fierce imaginary monster; also called wampus.

...

cattywampus (1) Catawampus, askew, awry, positioned diagonally, cater-cornered, oblique. (2) Very big, a monster of its kind. "'I'll bet we kin ketch us a cattywampus in one o' them ponds.' {Jody said}." (Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, The Yearling, 1938)


Early occurrences of 'catawampus' and its variants in the wild

The earliest instance of the spelling catawampus in Elephind search results is from "A Few Days in the Diggings" (an article about the California Gold Rush) in the [Springfield] Illinois Daily Journal (February 24, 1849):

Toted my tools to Hiram K. Doughboys boarding shanty and settled with him for blankets and board , at thirty dollars per diem. Catawampus prices here, that's a fact; but every body's got more dust than he knows what to do with.

The earliest Elephind match for the spelling catawampous is from the Anti-slavery Bugle (September 30, 1854):

...I lick them cussed Britishers, I hope, Into a 'tarnal and Immortal smash, Whittle down all their greatness to a pint, Scuttle their island, 'nihilate John Bull, And of his catawampous carcase leave no more than an invisible grease-spot.

And the earliest Elephind match for catawamptiously is from "McArone's War Correspondence" (dated December 21, 1864), in the Sacramento [California] Daily Union (February 15, 1865):

You see, there are not so many fighting-men down yonder as there used to be. They had but two armies — Lee's and Hood's — and couldn't very well afford to lose one of them.

Having lost one — poor Hood's force is pretty catawamptiously chawed up — I rather think that the Confederacy had better lay its bundle right down and hang its fiddle right up.

The "oblique" sense of catawampus may appear as early as "Ye Merrie Klan of Comus! The King of Gaiety and His Pageant," in the Houston [Texas] Daily Mercury (December 19, 1873):

He [Triton] was followed by one "of those pert little "smart Alecks," who wear jockey-caps and look catawampus out of their eyes. He frisked his caudality around in a lively manner, and seemed as self-sufficient as if he had played "hookey" from school in entire week without having been detected.

But the meaning of catawampus here isn't entirely clear—it may mean "dangerously or insolently," rather than "obliquely." Nevertheless J.E. Lighter, Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang (1993) firmly establishes that both the "ferocious" meaning and the "diagonal" meaning were in existence by 1851:

catawampus adj. {orig. unkn.} Midland. 1. ferocious or impressive [Citations to Martin Chuzzlewit (1843) and to Davy Crockett's Almanac (1847) omitted.] 2. out of shape;diagonal, crooked, or askew. Also adv. [First cited example:] 1851 Spirit of Times (Nov. 8) 453: They sed that he and his wife and children had their faces so wrinkled up an turned catter-wompus like, that the skeeters couldn't lite on um long enuf to bite.

Lighter also notes a very early instance of catawampus as a noun:

catawampus n. a peculiar or remarkable thing or person. Often joc[ular]. [First cited example:] 1833 Paulding Lion of the West 21: On my way I took a squint at my wild lands along by the Big Muddy and Little Muddy to Bear Grass Creek, and had what I call a rael {sic}, roundabout catawampus, clean through the deestrict.

Lighter also notes instances of catarumpus as a noun from 1848, of the adverb catawampously from 1834 (cited in the Dictionary of American Regional English: "The gineral was catawampously inclin'd tu the United States' service"), and of the verb catawampus from 1839 (cited Mitford Mathews, Dictionary of Americanisms on Historical Principles [1951]: "a catawampussed fix"). The longer version of the March 8, 1839, quotation cited from Mathews is from the New Orleans Picayune and uses catawampussed as an adjective meaning "Confounded, 'bodaciously used up'":

Things have been a goin' on in a catawompussed fix for a long time, nary party ownin' land yet both makin' jest as free as though they had it reg'larly deeded over to 'em.

Mathews also cites an early use of catawampus used as an interjection:

1938 Matschat Suwannee River 19 At her refusal, he drank deeply. 'Catawampus! Kin lick my weight in in wildcats after that.'

The other interesting thing about Mathews's treatment of the word is that it identifies the noun as meaning "A bogy, sprite, hobgoblin. Used jocularly of a person" as early as 1844 (Carlton, New Purchase: "The tother one what got most sker'd, is a sort of catawampus.")


Conclusions

The word catawampus in various spellings and syntactical guises has been in use in the United Sates since at least 1833, when James Paulding used the expression in his play about David Crockett, The Lion of the West. It appears as part of a letter from Colonel Nimrod Wildfire [Crockett] of Kentucky to his uncle, Peter Freeman:

FREEMAN. ...(Reads.) "Uncle Peter—Washington, July 1st. The very day I got your coaxing letter I packed up my shirts and some other plunder and set right off a horse-back under high steam. On my way I took a squint at my wild lands along by the Big Muddy and Little Muddy to Bear Grass Creek, and had what I call a rael, roundabout catawampus, clean through the deestrict. If I hadn't I wish I may be te-to-taciously ex-flunctified."

MRS. FREEMAN. There, Mr. Freeman, what do you term that?

FREEMAN. The veritable Kentucky vocabulary

As this excerpt suggests, some of the earliest people to record the expression did not natively used it themselves, but picked it up to convey local (or distant) color. Under the circumstances it would not be shocking if these writers misunderstood and misused the expression in their own writing.

Most early uses of the expression emphasize a sense of wildness and ferocity, and this in turn helps explain why early dictionaries connected the word with catamounts—large North American wildcats. That early association lives on in the name Wampus Cats, which high schools in Conway, Arkansas; Leesville, Louisiana; Itasca, Texas; Atoka, Oklahoma; and Clark Fork, Idaho all claim for their sports teams. Four of these five high schools are located in the south-central United States.

Harold Wentworth, American Dialect Dictionary (1944) notes that in certain regions of the United States, catawampus could be (1) an exclamation (along the lines of "thunderation!" or "hoky smokes!"), (2) "an imaginary fierce animal," or (3) "cattycorner." The same dictionary states that in west Texas in 1915 "catawampus cat" was a dialectal term for "a virago."

The true origin of cattywampus may be lost (if it was ever known), but any serious attempt to account for the name should, I think, take seriously the strong tendency of dictionaries during the 1800s to link the term to catamounts—and to the survival of wampus cats even today.

As for why catawampus became associated with cattycorner in the sense of "diagonal," it bears noticing that numerous regional variations on catty-corner existed during the first half of the twentieth century, including cattycornered, kittycorner, kitty-cattycornered, catawampous, caterwampust, caterin', catabiassed, cat-a-cornered,catercornered, catter-cornered, catterwampusin, catty-stranglin', cat-a-goggling, and cattywampus. Under the circumstances, the surprise isn't that cattywampus was one of the many terms used in various parts of the country, but that caterwauling (for example) managed to escape.

  • The way that catawampus and wampus cat, which were entirely fictitious bogies, became associated with the catamount is a mystery. The obvious explanation is that it happened in the NC or TN (the Eastern Catamount was still around at the time), and western migration did the trick. I have my doubts. Too much changed. One theory is that the Carolina Lowcountry legend made it down to the Panama Canal Zone, where it combined with local legends involving very real, very dangerous wildcats. This mash-up, which now involved real cats, was spread to the rest of the states by the returning workers. – Phil Sweet Oct 24 '16 at 15:54
  • @PhilSweet: Interesting comment. I'd love to read a more detailed account of the geographical migration of the word and evolution of its meaning along the lines you describe. Bartlett in 1848 seem to think that catawampus illustrates a western U.S. tendency to invent to multisyllable nonsense words (like the later hornswoggle, skullduggery, shenanigan, and slang-whanger). The catamount connection emerges in DeVere 24 years later, but his confidence doesn't so much establish the validity of the connection as encourage his contemporaries to share that confidence, justified or not. – Sven Yargs Oct 24 '16 at 17:54
  • I fear that if this ever got put down properly, it would read like The Golden Bough – Phil Sweet Oct 24 '16 at 18:17
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According to etymonline.com

also catawampous, cattywampus, catiwampus, etc. (see "Dictionary of American Slang" for more), American colloquial. First element perhaps from obsolete cater "to set or move diagonally" (see catty-cornered); second element perhaps related to Scottish wampish "to wriggle, twist, or swerve about." Or perhaps simply the sort of jocular pseudo-classical formation popular in the slang of those times, with the first element suggesting Greek kata-.

Earliest use seems to be in adverbial form, catawampusly (1834), expressing no certain meaning but adding intensity to the action: "utterly, completely; with avidity, fiercely, eagerly." It appears as a noun from 1843, as a name for an imaginary hobgoblin or fright, perhaps from influence of catamount. The adjective is attested from the 1840s as an intensive, but this is only in British lampoons of American speech and might not be authentic. It was used in the U.S. by 1864 in a sense of "askew, awry, wrong" and by 1873 (noted as a peculiarity of North Carolina speech) as "in a diagonal position, on a bias, crooked."

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From Wiktionary:

The crooked sense may at least partly derive from the same source as the "cater" in cater-corner, which some would derive from Middle French catre ‎(“four”)- in reference to four corners/square- from Old French quatre ‎(“four”), from Latin quattuor. This is disputed by others, who suggest a possible Old Norse or other Scandinavian origin. See cater-corner and cater-corner for more.

cater-corner:

cater- +‎ corner, where cater- is of disputed origin. Liberman argues that this is a prefix meaning “crooked, angled, clumsy”, of North Germanic origin; compare cater-cousin.[1] The verb cater ‎(“move diagonally, place diagonally, cut diagonally”) is attested from 1577 (Liberman proposes this as a backformation from cater-), and in 19th century Lancashire dialect, cater-cornered refers both to stone blocks that are out of square, and people who walk twisted (with one side in front of the other), especially if partially paralyzed.[1] Further awkward and clumsy are of Scandinavian origin, and Old Irish cittach ‎(“left-handed, awkward”) is cognate to cater- words, also suggesting a Scandinavian origin.

A commonly proposed etymology (proposed in the 19th century) derives cater, from French quatre ‎(“four”) (hence “four corner” – at the opposite corner of a square), and similarly cater-cousin from “fourth cousin”, while Liberman rejects this as implausible – similar terms from French are simply calqued as “four corners” (as in “four corners of the world”, from French “les quatre coins du monde”), the English term cater ‎(“four”) (from French) was primarily used in dice, the domestication of a specialized foreign term as an adverb for “across” seems implausible, there are many Germanic terms that appear to be cognates, and other terms with cater- are found in English dialects.[1]

caterpillar and caterwaul are unrelated (derived from cognates to cat), but may have influenced the pronunciation of earlier *cate- (later cater-), or undergone similar sound changes.[1]

  • Thank you so very much for all the kind replies. I thought I would show you how I used "cattywampus" in my current novel, Rebel Love Song, to be released in the U.S. on Kindle on Dec. 15: – Lou Nelson Oct 24 '16 at 19:05

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