The Grammarphobia Blog

Is your dress really katish?

Q: I’m writing from Daytona Beach. My mother always used the word “katish” (emphasis on the second syllable) to describe someone who was well dressed or nicely turned out. I don’t know how this word is spelled because I only heard her say it. Does such a word exist? And if so, how is it spelled?

A: This is a recognized regionalism that means pretty much what your mother used it for. And something tells me she wasn’t born in Daytona Beach.

The Dictionary of American Regional English has an entry for a word spelled variously as “catish” or “katish” or “kitash.”

It has been heard, chiefly in the north-central United States, since 1890, and it means stylish, elegant, or beautiful (it’s often preceded by “very,” according to DARE).

The regional dictionary has citations collected from Ohio, Wisconsin, Illinois, and Indiana. Here’s one quotation recorded by a DARE researcher:

“A word that has been knocking around in our family for several generations … is … kitash (with a short i sound and ah sound for the a, emphasis on the last syllable). We use it in our family to denote something rather elegant, e.g., ‘We went to a very kitash party last night, everyone came formal, butlers all over the place.’ “

Here’s how another interview subject explained the word: “Pleasantly elegant, very nice, stylish. ‘Your dress is really katish!’ “

I’ve done some etymological digging, but the upshot is that I can’t give you a definite answer about the origins of “katish.”

The journal American Speech published an article in 1983 by Frederic G. Cassidy about a prefix (“ker,” also spelled “ka,” “ca,” “cur,” etc.) used as an intensifier to form adjectives.

Some familiar examples include “kablam” (or “kerblam”), “kerplop,” “kerplunk,” “kersplash,” and so on. Cassidy notes that such words are invariably stressed on the second syllable.

He suspects the tradition of forming words (sometimes whimsical or humorous ones) with this prefix may have come from Gaelic sources, particularly Old Scottish.

There is lots of evidence that it didn’t originate in the US, since the British have used formations like “curflummox” and “curfuffle,” and Scots Gaelic is particularly rich in such words.

This leads Cassidy to propose that the prefix might have originated as one spelled in Scots as “car,” “cur” (most frequently), or “ker.” Its meanings, roughly, are (1) wrongly, confusedly, crookedly; (2) very, exceedingly; (3) closely, intimately.

Cassidy’s theory is that when large numbers of Ulster Scots (also known as Scotch-Irish) came to the US in the 18th century, they brought the prefix with them. “The earliest recorded American examples are from just before and after 1830,” he says.

Most of the old words formed with this prefix are unrecognizable now. In discussing one of them, “catish” or “kitash,” Cassidy’s article says: “The base word, tash or tish, has not been found but the first syllable certainly appears to be ker.

However, I did find a word of Scottish origin, now obscure, that might be a clue to the origin of the “tish” or “tash” part.

The word, “tosh,” an adjective and adverb meaning “clean, neat, tidy, trim,” first appeared in print in 1776, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

It’s not inconceivable that a speaker of Scots Gaelic might have described someone especially nicely turned out as “curtosh.”

A response from the questioner: “You’re right. My mother was so NOT from Daytona Beach. She was from upstate New York – around Albany. Her family was of Irish, Dutch, and German background, arriving in the early to mid-1800′s.”

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