Share This Spectacular Vernacular
When you saw this word, you probably had the same reaction I did when I received it in my vocabulary email from Merriam-Webster (and, yes, I subscribe to that). I thought I had been mispronouncing or misspelling the word my whole life.
Ah, but catercorner is one of three accepted variations of the same word. The other two are catty-corner and kitty-corner. Those variations are a great example of how words evolve.
Even with my rudimentary, took-it-in-high-school French, I know quatre means four. I didn’t know 14th and 15th Century French often spelled it catre. The English adapted it into their lingo, especially for games like dice. Now picture a die on the “four” side and you will see the corners.
Since English prefers -er to -re, so catre became cater. Don’t, however, confuse this with the English word cater and the more common caterer, referring to someone who provides food. That one also comes from French, but acatour and, earlier, acater meaning to buy.
Isn’t language confusing?
So back to cater meaning four, evolving into cater-corner meaning four corners, or more accurately, to move diagonally because… look at the die again. And how did we get to the more common catty-corner and kitty-corner? Because we English speakers confused ourselves.
You see, cater-corner sounds like cat so we mispronounced it.
And so the etymology of the word is we acquired it from the French, used it for games which included dice, which made us think of corners, so we changed the meaning to diagonal, and then we mangled the pronunciation.
Crystal clear, right?
I still don’t get the “four” connection (other than the etymology). To me, “kitty-corner” meant diagonal, which gave it three corners – the fourth corner was missing. Or is that the point?
That’s interesting. I’ve always thought of it as like a crossroad where you stand at one corner and look diagonally across the intersection to the opposite corner (so 4 corners), but I never say a word can’t have a different meaning in some “corners” of the world.