Ask An Editor: Kitty, Catty, Cater?

Kitty-corner/catty-corner. I know it’s regional. But a story I edited a few nights ago had cater-corner. Which is best?

First, a disclaimer: I am neither a linguist nor a lexicographer—I’m just an editor who likes to understand where words come from and how best to use them. The short answer about kitty-cornered, cater-cornered, and catty-cornered is that they’re all correct, but you’ll find preference varies regionally. (Check out The Harvard University Press article highlighting Joshua Katz’s regional dialect variations. I’m square in “kitty-cornered” land.) The Dictionary of American Regional English lists a few more regional idiosyncrasies:

  • kittering
  • kitty-cross
  • kitty-wampus
  • kitty-katty
  • catacornered

But where does the phrase come from, and how did it mutate?

According to Garner, cater-corner originates from the Middle English catre-cornered, which means “four-cornered.” Catre, of course, is derived from the Latin word, quattor, and later the French word, quatre, for “four.” This idea was proposed in the 19th century, and is widely accepted by most dictionaries and usage guides. (For what it’s worth, Merriam-Webster agrees.) If we dig a little deeper, we find cater has a more complicated history. How did “four-cornered” become synonymous with “diagonal”?

In An Analytic Dictionary of English Etymology, Anatoly Liberman suggests modern usage of cater may be traced to an Old Danish word, kejte, or Swedish word, kaitu, instead. Both words refer to the left hand. In less enlightened times, the left side of the body often was associated with crookedness, evil, or weakness.[i] Liberman also connects those words to the Old Irish cittach, which means “left handed; awkward.” These words could have influenced the first 16th century attested usage of cater as a Middle-English verb meaning, “to place diagonally.”

Regardless of whether it’s derived from catre or kaitu, “cater-cornered” is the dictionary-preferred variation. The kitty-, catty-, or even kiddy-cornered variations (probably) arrived via folk etymology. If you’re unfamiliar, folk etymology is the process of transforming unfamiliar words into words with which the speaker has a relationship. Cater (unfamiliar) was gradually replaced by catty and kitty (familiar), which also benefit by having similar mouth sounds. They really took off, too. The widespread usage of catty- and kitty-cornered has kept them off the eggcorn list.[ii] 

Query wisely: your writer is probably using the variation they know best.

 


[i] Consider the Latin adjective, sinistrum, which meant “left,” but eventually acquired negative connotations (see the English sinister). Parallels exist in multiple languages. 

[ii] A phrase that is substituted with a similar-sounding phrase. An oronym. Think “egg corn” instead of “acorn,” “rod iron” instead of “wrought iron,” “card shark” instead of “card sharp,” or “to be pacific” instead of “to be specific.” These tend to be regional, too. 

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