Historically Speaking

Making sense of it all!

Cattywampus

Posted by Elyse Bruce on June 7, 2016

Beginning in 1919, moonshine was outlawed and so many of the farmers in the southern United States hid their stills deep in the caverns that dotted their countryside.  In the evening, when all the work on the farm was done and the menfolk wanted to gather without the womenfolk knowing about it, all it took was the sound of a shotgun to set things in motion.

The sound of a shotgun meant that one of the farmers had seen a Wampus Cat, a fearsome variation of cougar with glowing eyes, that haunted the forests of East Tennessee, Virginia, West Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, and Kentucky.  When the shot was fired, everyone within earshot came running.

Of course, once everyone was gathered, they’d slip on down into the cavern where the moonshine still was hidden away, and indulge in some man cave time away from the women.  In 1943, all that changed due to changes in the law regarding moonshine.  But the fact that the cattywampus was blamed only served to make the fictional animal all the more real over the years.

In 1916, the Fourth Estate (which was a “newspaper for the makers of newspapers and investors in advertising” according to its tagline) carried an interesting tidbit about the cattywampus in its New Year’s Day edition.

The “Wampus Cat” is the latest creation of Charles H. Gatchell, cartoonist for the Cleveland (Ohio) Press and creator of the “Colonel Al Ibi” series.  Someone in the office remarked recently that “Gatch” was a “Wampus Cat” at making cartoons, and “Gatch” immediately drew up plans and specifications for what he thought a “Wampus Cat” ought to look like.

Imagine the consternation among the art staff when a scientific subscriber wrote in and stated that there really is such an animal as a “Wampus Cat” and that it doesn’t look anything like “Gatch’s” characterization.

On page 225 of Volume 4 of “Dialect Notes” published by the University of Alabama Press in 1917, a definition for catawampus (or wampus cat) was included.

Catawampus (or wampus) cat, n.phr. A virago.  “She’s a regular catawampus cat.”

IMPORTANT NOTE 1:  A virago is the word used to describe a domineering, aggressive woman.

Charles Dickens’ serialized story “The Life and Adventures of Martin Chuzzlewit” published in 1843 through 1844 used the word catawampous in the sense that’s found in the stories of the southern U.S. States.  Perhaps it’s because he had returned from a six-month voyage to America with his wife, Catherine, in 1842 that he included it in this story.

“Snakes more,” says he; “rattle-snakes. You’re right to a certain extent, stranger. There air some catawampous chawers in the small way too, as graze upon a human pretty strong; but don’t mind THEM — they’re company. It’s snakes,” he says, “as you’ll object to; and whenever you wake and see one in a upright poster on your bed,” he says, “like a corkscrew with the handle off a-sittin’ on its bottom ring, cut him down, for he means wenom.”‘

IMPORTANT NOTE 2:  Charles Dickens did not enjoy his trip abroad in America.  He was appalled at the commonness of society (which included spitting tobacco into a spittoon) and insulted at how poorly he was treated by the press.  He held no hope for America achieving any sort of moral improvement, and disapproved of slavery.

It would be easy to let the trail end here, however, the fictional Wampus Cat isn’t the beginning of the expression catawampus or cattywampus.  The word appears in Volume 16 of Punch magazine published in 1849 where it’s used in a story titled, “A Few Days In The Diggins” by a “Free and Independent.”  The author, it would seem, wished to remain anonymous.  That being said, this is the passage that includes the word.

Toted my tools to Hiram K. Doughboy’s boarding shanty, and settled with him for blankets and board at 30 dollars per diem.  Catawampus prices here, that’s a fact; but everybody’s got more dust than he knows what to do with.

By 1864, the word cattywampus was understood in the United States of America to mean that something was askew, out of whack, or wrong which is the meaning the word carries to this day.  But back in the 1830s, the word was used as an adverb in the sense of “utterly and completely.”

Idiomation was unable to find an earlier published version of the word.  In light of the fact that cattywampus was published in the 1830s implies it was used in conversation in years leading up to the 1830s so Idiomation pegs this to a generation earlier to about 1800.

5 Responses to “Cattywampus”

  1. So informative. Thanks for the great article.

    • Thanks for reading the entry and commenting, brennanwrites. Be sure to drop by as often as you’d like to catch up on previous entries and to read new entries. If you have any phrases, clichés, expressions, sayings, words, etc., you’d like researched, be sure to leave Idiomation a comment in the CONTACT section.🙂

  2. Erik said

    I’ve never heard of this word, such as it is. You would think Mr. Dickens would have seen the potential in all our dysfunction.

    Thanks!

    • It’s an interesting word, and it’s unfortunate that the word didn’t catch on better than it did after Charles Dickens included it in one of his stories. It’s a fun word to say and a great conversation starter at parties. 🙂

  3. […] « Cattywampus […]

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