Q: What is the origin of the expression “catty-corner” and does it have anything to do with cats?
A: The phrase, originally seen as “catty-cornered” or “cater-cornered” in 19th-century America, has no relationship at all to cats.
Although the “catty” version appeared first in print, according to citations in the Oxford English Dictionary, the “cater” version 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 English verb came from the French quatre (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.
The dictionary’s first citation for the verb “cater” is from Barnaby Googe’s 1577 translation of Conrad Heresbach’s Foure Bookes of Husbandry: “The trees are set checkerwise, and so catred, as looke which way ye wyl, they lye leuel [level].”
And this OED citation, written four centuries later, describes the motion of a wagon at a level railroad crossing: “ ‘Cater’ across the rails ever so cleverly, you cannot escape jolt and jar” (from an 1873 travel memoir, Silverland, by the British writer George Alfred Lawrence).
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.
John Steinbeck’s Cannery Row (1945) has two examples in one sentence: “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.
And in some versions, the “corner” element disappears, as in the mid-19th-century “catawampous” or “catawampus.” The OED calls this “a humorous formation” that meant not only ferocious (perhaps derived from “catamount,” the mountain lion) but also askew or awry.
Slang dictionaries also have the spelling “catter-wompus” (1851) for the askew or diagonal sense of the word, followed by “cattywampus” in the first decade of the 1900s.
And naturally there’s a “kitty” version too. The Dictionary of American Regional English has examples of “kittywampus” dating from the 1940s.
[Note: This post was updated on March 22, 2020.]