All cattywampous

Buses, eh. They’re like new words. You wait forever and then two come along at once.

Still reeling from the fact that the word colporteur was a thing (‘Ah, mais oui, but he eez ze American who eez making those songs for Fred Astaire n’est ce pas?’), I was introduced in passing to another newbie epithet that while it may be familiar to folksy Americans, it was news to me.

The word is “cattawumpous” or alternatively catawamptious; catawampous; cattywampus; cattywampous; caliwampus; caliwampous; cankywampus; kittywampus; gittywampus; skiwampus. You pays yer money.

So what does the word actually mean? Like all the best bits of English, which I swear is a language so fiendishly crafted using zen precepts simply to defy foreigners to ever learn it completely, it means two things, but each meaning has echoes in the other definition.

As an adjective it can mean fierce or destructive, and yet it can signify misalignment or confusion or the sense where all is not right with the world. So things can be out of order enough to make you angry, or you can be the victim of a malevolently mis-ordered universe where the Norse god Loki has had his way.

Oh and as a noun you can add a bit of menace; it can be a real or mythological wild feline — a sort of mountain lion.

These differences sprang from its two points of origin. Southern Illinois for bent out of shape and the South from Florida to Texas for fearsome.

If the word did appear in England’s newspapers — and it frequently did in the early 19th century — it was acknowledged to be an outlandish Americanism, unfit to grace the vocabulary of John Bull. Often the writer mentioned that it was something that Brother Jonathan would utter. And while we are wandering through this dictionary of the archaic, the aforementioned Brother Jonathan was the embodiment and personification all all things American until his older relative, Uncle Sam, stepped up to the plate.

As the other Cole Porter might say:-

Good authors too who once knew better words
Now only use four-letter words
Writing prose.
Anything goes.

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