A “new” word


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.


  1. Graham:
    I grew up in New Jersey, using and hearing “kiddie-cornered,”(an eggcorn), with “cater-cornered” as a secondary version, both pronounced with full rhoticity.

  2. I thought it was “kitty-corner” (grew up in Boston but didn’t hear it until I got to college). Of course with American t-flapping, kitty and kiddie are nearly homophones. My dictionary lists kitty corner as an alternate of cater-cornered, and says cater meaning “diagonally” comes from a term for the four on dice, which comes from French “quatre”. I guess kitty corner comes from reinterpreting cater-corner as referring to cats. But no word on where the term originated (it just says cater comes from a “dialect”).

  3. I believe your second hypothesis to be correct. I have only ever seen this term used by native AmE speakers, and even then I get the impression it’s seen as not-quite-formal.

    This eggcorn database forum thread from 2007 is relevant:


  4. A Texan, I’ve used “kitty-corner” and “catty-corner” all my sixty-something years.

  5. I’m Australian and I’ve never heard the word before.

  6. A learner of US English, I have somehow managed to encounter this expression over a dozen times. (though I’m more familiar with kitty-corner)

  7. As a British student in California in the 1970’s, I heard ‘kitty-corners’ as an adverbial many times. I wondered how I’d gone through life with no word for it, so started to use it myself, but once I’d left the US, no one seemed to understand.

  8. really never heard before, but it is interesting !!

  9. I’m a fellow language blogger, and I grew up in Chicago. I’ve heard all 3 variants: kitty- (or kiddie-)corner, catty-corner, and cater-corner. I heard kitty-corner first, and always thought it was odd, but later when I heard cater-corner I figured that must be the original, and kitty- and catty- were derived from it.

    There’s a similar set of words that might interest you: my grandfather used to say that something was kittywampus if it wasn’t straight or even. Again, there’s also cattywampus and catawampus. (Kittywampus is my favorite of all of these strange words!)

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