Daily Archives: April 2, 2014


Does this word look like it means ‘intimidate like a cat’? I think it sort of does.

How would that be, I wonder… Perhaps like Lewis Carroll’s Cheshire cat, smiling down creepily, pronouncing gnomically or gnostically and vanishing, the smile disappearing last.

I remember an acting class. Our professor told us to say “I hate you” to a seated student. Several of us in turn pulled an angry face, full of scorn, and practically spat out the words. Then one girl – a frankly attractive young woman – walked up, smiled sweetly, and purred, “I… hate… you,” those pretty curved lips suddenly sharp like scalpels.

I remember another theatre class, an improv exercise. A student was asked to draw an angry face. The leader of the exercise clearly expected a big frowny mouth. The student instead drew a smiley mouth. The leader was confused. But then the student added sharp teeth.

And then there was the guy I knew who talked about how his dog was impounded because it “smiled at an animal control officer.”

Well, the last one is definitely doglike. But the first two are catamount to a tat. I mean tantamount to a cat.

This word, I should say, is not a word about cats. The definition of the word – which OED tells us is obsolete, but it’s certainly not the only place on the web you will find the word – is (to quote a 1656 work) ‘To put one to open shame and punishment for some notorious offence, to scorn, to defame.’ Excatly (what a typo, I think I’ll keep it) what many of us want to do to certain politicians, and probably a few others too. Catamidiate them.

Those who know Greek roots will recognize the cata from catastrophe, catalogue, and various other words: it means ‘down’ or ‘downward’.

OK, but what is the midiate from? Well, the whole Greek root is katameidian καταμειδιᾶν, ‘despise’, so the back end of this is from a Greek infinitive μειδιᾶν.

Which means ‘smile’.

I’m not joking. The Liddell, Scott, Jones Ancient Greek Lexicon (LSJ) gives the following definition for καταμειδιάω (the first-person singular present indicative, which is what Greek verbs are more often indexed under): ‘smile at, despise’.

Think about that the next time someone talks about the sun – or fortune – smiling down. All that time you thought it liked you…

I’ll think of the Cheshire cat, who is featured on one of my pairs of cufflinks. The Cheshire cat and that girl in my acting class. The smile. Everything disappears but the smile.

And then that disappears too.