Historically Speaking

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Posts Tagged ‘Dialect Notes’

Cattywampus

Posted by Admin 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.

Posted in Idioms from the 19th Century | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments »

Have Kittens

Posted by Admin on January 3, 2014

If you’ve wondered what the expression have kittens means, it means to be very worried, upset, or angry about something. It’s a somewhat dramatic way of expressing that worry, upset or anger, but it clearly underscores the degree to which a person is worried, upset, or angry. To have kittens is the same thing as to have a cow or to have a [hairy] canary, and the expression, while rarely heard, is known in every English speaking country around the world.

In the UK, the Independent newspaper of September 6, 2013 published an article entitled, “Who Profits From The Economic Recovery Decides Party Fortunes?” The article by Andrew Grice addressed the challenge both political parties have in convincing low income workers that their party is a friend to low income workers. The subject of the recommendations made by the Down Street Policy Unit have some alarmed to the point where the article stated:

The Treasury, which is said to be “having kittens” about Number 10’s work, will veto the “profits plan” as “unworkable and anti-aspiration.”  Business groups are nervous too. They want the focus to be on improving skills and are worried that a higher wages floor would cost jobs.

Dan Stannett’s book “Daniel and the Lion’s Den: The True Story Of An Eight-Hour Inmate” published in 2007 also made use of the idiom.   The story was based on the author’s experiences with the prison system in April 1976 in a Virginia prison that had fewer than 10,000 inmates in it. Not to be mistaken for one on the wrong side of the law, it must be noted that Dan Stannett spent 25 years in law enforcement. In his book, the following passage uses the idiom having kittens.

While Jim was being warm and happy waiting on his relief, he would be relieved early. The shift sergeant with a Kojak haircut came out and was having kittens while Jim England was giving the pissed off sergeant his best-looking John Wayne impression. “What the hell do you think you’re doing’?” the sergeant asked.

David Bealsey wrote a book entitled, “The Jenny: A New York Library Detective Novel” that was published in 1994. The year in which the story takes place is vague. The story states the night watchman makes $15,000 per year. We know that in New York City, a night watchman drew a salary of slightly overly $1,000 per year in 1884 based on newspaper accounts, and we know that a century later, in New York City, a night watchman drew a salary of just over $15,000 per year in 1985.  So it would seem that the story takes place in the latter half of the 20th century. In the story, the author wrote:

“Let’s go to your place,” I said as we got in.
Arbie gave her address to the driver.
“Storey saw me,” I gasped between breaths.
“I was having kittens,” Arbie said. “You were so long!”
“I heard Storey on the phone, “I explained. “After he left, the same guy called again. I picked up the receiver so he knew someone was there. He must have got in touch with Storey about it. But look!” I flicked on the light in the back of the cab. “We’ve got New’s stamps.”

In 1960, the P. G. Wodehouse (15 October 1881 – 14 February 1975) book “Jeeves in the Offing” (which was also known as “How Right You Are, Jeeves”) was first published in the United States on 4 April 1960 by Simon & Schuster, Inc., New York, and subsequently, in the United Kingdom on 12 August 1960 by Herbert Jenkins, London. It was the eighth Jeeves novel, and chronicled yet another visit by Bertie Wooster to his Aunt Dahlia at Brinkley Court. The idiom appeared in Chapter VII as follows:

‘Gone?’
‘Gone.’
‘Are you sure?’
I said that sure was just what I wasn’t anything but.
‘It is not possible that you may have overlooked it?’
‘You can’t overlook a thing like that.’
He re-gurgled.
‘But this is terrible.’
‘Might be considerably better, I agree.’
‘Your uncle will be most upset.’
‘He’ll have kittens.’
‘Kittens?’
‘That’s right.’
‘Why kittens?’
‘Why not?’

Graham Seal claims that the expression goes back to at least the early 20th century. This appears to be correct as the expression is shared in Volume 5 of the “Dialect Notes” printed by the Tuttle, Morehouse & Taylor Company of New Haven, Connecticut and published by the American Dialect Society, covering the years 1918 through to 1927. The idiom is attributed as an established idiom in 1918.

According to the BBC, particularly painful pregnancies were thought to be as a result of a witch’s curse. Instead of being with child, the woman was thought to have kittens inside her, clawing to get out. Women who believed this to be true and who were experiencing pain over the course of their pregnancy would become hysterical at the thought that they and their babies had been cursed by a witch.

In fact, there are records dating back to 1654 that show that a woman appealed to a Scottish court for permission to abort. Her reason for making the request was because she had ‘cats in her bellie.’ In fact, in the 1960s, it was reported that people in parts of the highlands of Banffshire dreaded cats for that very reason.

That being said, have kittens is difficult to find in newspapers, magazines and books with the trail going cold right before the turn of the century, in the late 1890s. Idiomation therefore pegs the idiom to about 1900s.

Posted in Idioms from the 20th Century | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »