Now, here‘s a word that seems to be constructed of assorted bits. If you’re an inveterate word taster, you will probably break it into three right away: cata, skeu, and astic. The problem is that they give contrasting flavours, sort of like onions, oranges, and celery all blended together – the kind of thing that might make you wanna duck when you hear it coming.
Cata gives a strong taste of catastrophe off the top, not to mention cataplexy (oops, mentioned it – don’t faint), catapult, cataract… a whole catalogue of words, all having something to do with something going down (Greek kata).
Skeu might make you think of skeuomorph, or it might make you think of skewing or skewering, or you might, if you work in retail, think first of SKUs (stock-keeping units, i.e., product identifiers). The sk also has a sporty side, showing up in ski and skateboard.
Astic probably brings fantastic first to mind, or perhaps, in this context, the sardonic blend craptastic.
The whole thing, in its polysyllabicity, seems clearly to be an impressive word one way or the other, though it’s not obvious whether it’s positive or negative. It could be some crazy hepcat term – after all, it starts with cat: “Wow, that was cat-a-skeu-astic, man. You really blew that axe.” It could be one of those nineteenth-century confections like copacetic or perhaps one of those older similar pseudo-classical constructions like conundrum. One way or another, though, it looks like a chimera of a word – or perhaps a jabberwock.
But what fun it is to say! It has a positively mechanical clicking and hissing. It gets better, too: strip it down – take out the vowels. What do you have? ctskstc. Yes! A palindrome! It bounces back and forth on the tongue, back-tip-blade-back-blade-tip-back. And the first and last /k/ are spelled with c, giving the word a shape like a suspension bridge or some similar construction. To match this peak in the middle, once you say it with the vowels, the middle syllable raises the lips to a pucker while the other four keep them back and relaxed.
But who uses this word, anyway? Well, more or less nobody. We know it was used at least once in 1645 and at least once in 1841, because OED gives a citation for the one and Google Books has it in a book dated to the other (not that Google Books dates are infallible, but for this book it looks accurate). We can feel sure that those two authors had one thing in common: Aristotle’s Rhetoric. Aristotle introduces the term kataskeuastikós in book II, chapter 26. Sensible translators render it as constructive, since that’s what the Greek term means (it derives from kataskeué “preparation”). But far too many people just can’t resist a nice, built-up, technical-sounding word, and no language is a packrat like English is.
So what the heck. Toss those oranges, onions, celery into the blender. Add some soy sauce, garlic, brown sugar, parsley, bay leaves, hot pepper, why the heck not – if you’re going to construct something, might as well be not just constructive but cata-freakin’-skeuastic. And then if you wanna duck, get a duck, and rub the blend on it. Marinate for four hours or overnight and roast. Guess what I’m making for supper tomorrow…
You know this word just begs to be a meaningless intensifier. Go ahead, say it: that roasted duck sounds cataskeuastic, dunnit?