Monday, April 22, 2024

Sorry, no kitties in this corner

| May 28, 2020 1:00 AM

Languages provide endless entertainment. I grew up with two in our household, which is probably how it started: Wondering how English became such a hodgepodge of other languages. Etymology is fascinating, at least to word nerds. So let’s start there:

Hodgepodge (mixture): Derived from hotchpotch (a stew), from old French hocher (to shake).

And the recently popular:

Quarantine (isolation due to exposure): By the late 1600s a quarantine was widely known as an isolation period for arriving ships suspected of carrying disease. From Italian quaranta giorni (40 days) — a practice that started in plague-averse Venice in the 1300s.

In 16th-century England, quarantine also referred to the 40-day period women remained at home after being widowed.

Here’s one that peeves Mrs. Language Person, because it’s such a blatant misspelling and misnomer: “Kitty corner” isn’t a thing, but this is:

Catercorner (diagonally opposite): Possibly mid-19th century, from “cater,” denoting the four on dice, sounds like French quatre or Latin quattuor (four). Think mispronounced “catty corner,” hence, “kitty corner.”

Like nails on my chalkboard.

Look for this local, and quintessentially American, favorite to be featured in a North Idaho Business Journal story soon:

Blue plate special (restaurant meal at a special price): First known use in late 1800s, from the American Harvey House chain restaurants which served cheap meals on divided blue dinner trays. Blue was a common crockery color.

Which leads us to the opposite end of class structure:

Upper crust (aristocratic): It’s undoubtedly older, but an 1823 English slang dictionary offered this: “One who lords it over others is Mister Upper-crust.” Earlier, upper crust described both the Earth’s surface and a man’s hat.

An oft-repeated explanation found on the internet is apparently false. Britain’s Phrase Finder claims upper crust is “the unburnt part of a bread loaf served to the gentry,” apparently without supporting historical evidence.

Next, apropos of spring:

Raining cats and dogs (raining hard): Origin unknown, but suspicions include Norse mythology (an airborne Odin’s dog and a witch’s cat falling from above), and an old English practice of collecting dead dogs and cats from streets after rainstorms. A 1651 Henry Vaughan poem described a roof secure against “dogs and cats rained in shower,” and later colorful English writers described it raining pitchforks and stair-rods.

Or perhaps the explanation is phonetic. In Greek cata doxa loosely means defying belief.

Whichever you believe, please note: The pets-on-thatched-roofs explanation has been debunked.

And speaking of animals:

Chew the fat (talk informally): Origin unknown. British sailors and farmers supposedly chewed salted animal fat while at leisure. Another speculative explanation is that slow conversation looks like deliberate chewing. (Similar: “Chew the cud” — to think slowly and carefully)

Sources: Etymology Online, Merriam-Webster and Oxford Dictionaries, Library of Congress.

Next time: Favorite words from Yiddish, or why I’m a klutz but never a schmuck.


Sholeh Patrick is a columnist for the Hagadone News Network and hopeless word nerd. Contact her at