Daily Archives: February 4, 2009


Well, to start with, this is a real freight train of a word, visually, with those desultory repetitions of letters like branded boxcars: a c and a c, three e‘s spread about, three r‘s ditto, and an admixture of others. Your eye will spot cater and cornered quickly enough; has this to do with cooking under seige? or serving a niche market? Do cat and corn play into it? Well, cat has its tongue, anyway: it’s pronounced such that you might expect the t to be double. And the cat runs away with it, too; from this form it became catty-corner and, with that ease of colloquiality that leads some to speak fondly where felines are found, it curled up into kittycorner, drawing diminution from the higher harmonics on [I] and [i]. At all times it has retained the zig-zag of the tongue in the mouth: back-front-back-front. So how did this cat horn into a word about criss-crossing? Cater comes from French quatre, “four”; in a way, this is an almost atavistic progression, as we see forms like cater for “four” in other Indo-European languages: catur in Sanskrit, with the c said as we say “ch”; cztery in Polish, with the “ch” sound again; ceathair in Irish Gaelic, with the c hard but the th as we say “h”; and so many others. The Germanic languages are odd ones out in preferring forms like four. And as to corner? A corner is a meeting of lines at an angle, which to Latins looked like a horn, cornu. Fitting enough, especially given the sounds that would greet a cat – or you – cutting catercorner across a congested carfax.