Kitty Catty Corner
The other day one of my students and I were chatting during a break. And one point in the conversation she said something akin to the following:
Our neighbors live catty-corner to us.
This particular lady hails from the South. As some of you know, I come from the North, and I always said kitty corner. What about you?
Interestingly, both catty corner and kitty corner are regional dialectical variations of a word that has nothing whatsoever to do with cats: cater-cornered. The Oxford English Dictionary defines this adverb and adjective as "Also catacornered, catercorner, catty-cornered, etc. Diagonally; diagonal. So cater-cornering, catty-cornering.
The Maven's Word of the Day provides a nice etymology:
The "cater" element in this term is from the English dialect word cater, meaning 'diagonally', which is from an obsolete word meaning 'four', which eventually goes back to quattuor, the Latin word for 'four'. This "cater" also turns up, in modified form, in the word catawampus 'crooked; askew'.
The Phrase Finder explains how cater became kitty and catty:
But by a process known to language students as 'folk etymology,' the ordinary users of the term thought they detected an analogy to the ordinary domestic feline. Hence 'cater' soon became 'catty' and eventually 'kitty.'
Here are some real-world usages of all three terms:
Alfred Lerner Hall is catty-corner to stop sign. [source]
The Marriott Hotel is kitty-corner to the RiverCenter on Front Street. [source]
I was about to go back to what I was doing when I saw him get close to the driveway of the house kiddie-corner to me. [source]
This low-key hotel with a distinguished history and a continental feel is catercorner to Washington Square Parks magnificent arch. [source]
The OED gives the first published instance of cater-cornered as appearing on page 196 of Joseph C. Neil's 1838 illustrated essay collection Charcoal sketches; or scenes in a Metropolis 1838. This is the relevant text:
One of that class..who, when compelled to share their bed with another, lie in that engrossing posture called ‘catty-cornered’.
Finally, World Wide Words provides a nice, succinct description of yet another regional, tangentially related variation of catty-cornered:
That wonderful word catawampus is often used in the central and southern parts of the USA to mean the same thing, though it can also refer to something that?s askew, crooked, out of shape, or out of joint. The first part of it comes from the same source, though the second half is mysterious. It has been suggested its source is the Scots dialect verb wampish, to brandish, flourish or wave about. However, catawampus can also refer to something ferocious, impressive or remarkable. It may be this is an entirely separate sense, deriving from catamount for the mountain lion or cougar.
I agree with Michael Quinion; catawampus is an excellent word. It contains such lighthearted humor "out of the box"! On the other hand, I commit henceforth to do my best to use catercorner instead of kitty corner in my speech and writing. I must choose my grammatical battles, 'tis true, but on this one I want to be as orthodox as possible.