They say (whoever ‘they’ are) that travel broadens the mind. In my case it’s just broadened my vocabulary. I’ve come back from a fortnight’s holiday in Germany with a new word in my armoury – cater-cornered. I had never come across this before, but it appeared in two separate guides, one in Munich, the other in Nuremberg. I was mentally pronouncing it to myself as /ˌkeɪtəˈkɔːnəd/ – by analogy with the word I was familiar with: the verb cater, and worked out by comparing the wording in the books with the evidence on the ground (“A is cater-cornered with B”) that it must mean ‘diagonally opposite to’, but I was totally bemused by this usage of what to me was a completely unknown word in a guide book translated from German, by a German (and I was telling myself yet again that you should never ever translate anything for publication out of your own language, but only into it), and that he/she was using a strange sort of dictionary.
The word is in none of the editions I have of Chambers’ dictionaries – my first port of call for ‘obscure’ words like this, but the 7th edition of the COD has it, without comment, pronounced as I have shown it above. The 8th edition however, specifies it as US, and changes the pronunciation to /ˌkætəˈkɔːnəd/. It’s not given in the 5th edition, and I don’t have ready access to the 6th. (The 9th-11th editions have gone back to /ˌkeɪtəˈkɔːnəd/, by the way, although OED3 retains /ˌkætəˈkɔːnəd/).
The most recent British English example given in OED3 is from The Listener in 1959: “A square cat, going cater-cornered among the leeks.” If I had read this sentence, I wouldn’t have had a clue what it meant.
Have I been missing something all my life, or is this an example of a word that has travelled to the US, dropped out of use completely except in dialectal British English, and unlike so many words, not yet come back? It does not, after all, make an appearance anywhere in the British National Corpus.