The Grammarphobia Blog

Is there a cat in the corner?

Q: What is the origin of the expression “catty-corner” and does it have anything to with cats?

A: The phrase, originally seen as “catty-cornered” or “cater-cornered” in 19th-century America, has nothing to do with cats, either feline or cool, except in the minds of people unaware of its history.

Although the “catty” version appeared first in print, according to citations in the Oxford English Dictionary, the “cater” one is closer to the phrase’s etymological roots.

The OED traces both of them back to a 16th-century verb, “cater,” meaning “to place or set rhomboidally; to cut, move, go, etc., diagonally.” So to move in a “cater-cornered” way is to go diagonally from corner to corner.

The dictionary’s first citation for the verb “cater” is from Barnaby Googe’s 1577 translation of Heresbach’s Foure Bookes of Husbandry: “The trees are set checkerwise and so catred as looke which way ye will, they lye level.”

The English verb came from the French quatre, or four. Since the early 1500s, the word “cater” has also meant the number four in games of dice or cards, though this usage is not common today.

As for “catty-cornered,” the phrase has been spelled a number of ways over the years (“catacornered,” “katterkorner’d,” “cat-a-cornered,” etc.). Since the early 20th century, it has often been seen without the “ed” ending.

Here are a couple of examples from John Steinbeck’s Cannery Row (1945): “Lee Chongs’s grocery was on its catty-corner right and Dora’s Bear Flag Restaurant was on its catty-corner left.”

The feline-sounding version of the expression probably began with a mispronunciation of the relatively rare word “cater.” Through a process that language types call folk etymology, a cat ended up in the corner.

Both “cater-corner” and “catty-corner” are still used today and can be found in contemporary dictionaries. But a latecomer, “kitty-corner,” which first showed up at the end of the 19th century, is the most popular one these days, according to Google.

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