The Curmudgeon and the Catawampus
I wish I could write something called “The Walrus and the Carpenter,” but, unfortunately, a similar idea occurred to someone who lived before me. So I’ll write “The Curmudgeon and the Catawampus” instead. Who is a curmudgeon? The word has been around in English books since 1577 (OED). Samuel Johnson, the author of a famous 18th-century dictionary, defined the gentleman in question as “avaricious churlish fellow,” but in British usage a curmudgeon’s first quality (love of money) is more prominent than the second (lack of social mores). A British curmudgeon is preeminently a miser. Nearly all lexicographers agree on that point. Only Henry Cecil Wyld, in his A Universal English Dictionary, says “a churlish, cross-grained, surly, ill-tempered, cantankerous fellow.” He uses five synonyms for “contentious, querulous, grouchy” and not a single one for “greedy.” The British definition of curmudgeon prevailed in American dictionaries until the middle of the 20th century. Although contemporary dictionaries write: “1. A cantankerous person. 2. Rare a miser” or “A bad-tempered, difficult, cantankerous person,” it took lexicographers in the United States a long time to notice the difference between British and American usage. The prevalent definition was: “an avaricious, churlish, grasping fellow; a miser; niggard; churl.” Only Webster’s Third reversed the order and stated that a curmudgeon is 1. archaic: a grasping, avaricious man: Miser. 2. a crusty, ill-tempered, or difficult and often elderly person.” In the Upper Midwest, where I live, all those whom I asked what kind of a person a curmudgeon is said without hesitation “an ill-tempered man,”and no one had heard about this person’s being a scrooge. The American meaning may be as old, if not older, than “miser.”
Walter W. Skeat compared curmudgeon with Lowland Scots murgeon “mock, grumble” and mudgeon “grimace.” Both words fit the idea of a peevish, disgruntled man well. Not improbably, curmudgeon was first applied to an unpleasant, unsociable person and by extension to someone who stays away from jovial company for fear of being robbed or asked to help the less fortunate. Some light on the origin of mudgeon falls from the history of the verb mooch, which has been attested in numerous variants, including mouch, motch, and modge. It is, naturally, modge that is closest to mudgeon. (The voicing of -ch is the same as in hotchpotch versus hodge-podge and in Greenwich, pronounced greenidge.) The root of mooch and its variants occurs in words of several languages, for instance, in meucheln “murder (treacherously)” (German) and muchier “conceal, lurk” (Old French, still known in some modern dialects). Cognates have been found in Old Irish and Latin. Similar Italian words (mostly regional) appear to have been borrowed from Germanic, and the same may be true of French mouche “to spy” and mouchard “police informer, stoolie.” In English, Hamlet’s miching, the first part of the cryptic phrase miching malicho “sneaking mischief,” belongs with mooch and mouch, and so do, possibly, mug “waylay and rob” and mugger in hugger-mugger. Wherever one of those nouns, adjectives, and verbs turns up, it refers to secret, underhand dealings. There seems to have been a large group of words, part of international slang or underworld cant, designating actions that shirked the light of day.
Cur- in curmudgeon is a reinforcing prefix, widely known in sound imitative words (kerbang, kerbunk, kerplank, kerwallop) and in words like kerfuffle “disorder, flurry.” They occur with numerous spelling variants, the most common of them being ca-, as in kit and caboodle. The original curmudgeon was, it appears, a big “mudgeon,” whatever the exact meaning of mudgeon might be (“someone with an ugly mug”? “a grumbler sitting on his wealth, a penny pincher”?).
Enter catawampus, also recorded in at least half-dozen spelling variants. In slang, this word must have existed for quite some time before it was first attested in books in the middle of the 19th century. Originally a noun, it was early on taken for an adjective (as though catawampous) and applied to things fierce, eager, and in a state of disarray. The OED suggested a connection with Greek kata- (as in catastrophe, cataclysm, and the like) and said: “A high-sounding word with no very definite meaning.” The Century Dictionary (an American product), whose etymologies are detailed and often original, mentions only catawampous “fierce; voracious; devouring; destructive”; it was added in the supplement to Volume 1, and its etymology is equally helpless (or, to be merciful, let us say equally unhelpful): “A made word, form cata- + wamp-, vaguely imitative (cf. wap, whop) + -ous.” “A made word” is probably what some modern dictionaries call “coinage,” that is, a word invented by a known individual (like blurb), a blend, and so forth. The OED is fond of calling such formations fanciful. The problem is that all words were “made” by someone long ago or in recent memory and in the beginning they were fanciful. Words, unlike mushrooms, are “natural” from the point of view of language, but they do not grow without human assistance.
Today we have incomparably better databases than those at the disposal of our most learned predecessors. Catawampus ~ catawampous (and the corresponding adverb) were first recorded in the United States but soon reached England as part of “colonial” usage. A correspondent to Notes and Queries announced in 1880: “We all [!] know the beautiful phrase, imported from America, ‘I am catawampusly [sic] chawed up’.” Here, I suspect, he had a serious advantage over most Americans, who might never have heard this phrase. (According to another correspondent, who saw the adverb in his German [!] dictionary, one should say ‘catawamptiously chawed up’.) Wampus, a noun with sufficient currency, means “monster, hobgoblin,” a circumstance that came to the attention of lexicographers relatively late. This explains the senses in The Century Dictionary and the following funny passage (dated 1872): “They are like the catawampuses you see about harvest time; they fly quite pretty in the air, but, O my gracious, don’t they sting!” (quoted by the first aforementioned correspondent to Notes and Queries; this citation made its way into the Supplement to the OED.). Apparently, catawampuses were like “bugs” (a bug is, among other things, a hobgoblin).
A few suggestions about the origin of wampus are inconclusive, and I will turn to cata-. It cannot be from Greek, for, judging by the way the noun and the adjective were used, catawampus ~ catawampous did not arise among university students, and who else would have thought of adding a Greek morpheme to an obscure regional name of a monster? Cata-, also spelled cater-, kitty-, kiddy-, and so forth, is a prefix occurring in numerous words that mean “awry, askew, slanting,” as in cater-corner “diagonally across,” altered by folk etymology to kitty-corner ~ kiddy corner (this kata- is from Danish, not from French quatre “four,” as said in some dictionaries). About sixty years ago, dictionaries began to write that cata- in catawampus is the same familiar prefix (“askew”). This idea has no merit. What is a slanting, diagonal hobgoblin? These are the meanings of catawampus (noun, adjective, adverb, and verb), given in the Dictionary of American Regional English (DARE): “hobgoblin, imaginary monster; utterly, completely; askew, awry, wrong; move diagonally; put out of proper shape.” Add to it catawampus as an exclamation (something like good gravy!) and the senses from The Century Dictionary. I believe that we have reflexes of two words here. At a certain stage, cata- in catawampus was taken for cata- ~ cater- “askew,” but it could not be its first meaning The original fierce, blood-thirsty catawampus was probably a truly humongous wampus, a ca-wampus, ker-wampus, or cur-wampus. There is a convention in historical linguistics to supply reconstructed (not attested) forms with an asterisk. Clearly, all my ca- and kerwampuses are asterisked, but some people seem to share my attitude toward this word, for DARE has recorded the form catty-ker-wampus! With time, cata- supplanted ca-, and the word, not unexpectedly, acquired the meaning “awry.” But “utterly, completely” and “askew” are an ill-fitting pair cast as the coexistent meanings of one and the same word. A catawampus, I propose, is, from an etymological point of view, a big wampus, just as a curmudgeon is a big “mudgeon.” For this reason, I see no allure in the conjecture that catawampus is an alteration of the animal name catamount (a lynx or a mountain lion), regardless of whether catamount is indeed cat-a-mount or a variant of some other word. Perhaps cata- in it also refers to the beast’s ferocity. All this is debatable, but one conclusion is safe: unless you are an etymologist, stay way from curmudgeons and catawampuses.
Anatoly Liberman is the author of Word Origins…And How We Know Them. His column on word origins, The Oxford Etymologist, appears here each Wednesday. Send your etymology question to firstname.lastname@example.org; he’ll do his best to avoid responding with “origin unknown.”